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What's Behind The Coronavirus Testing Shortage?

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A coronavirus test kit shortage has forced several Sacramento testing sites to temporarily shut down. So what's behind this shortage, why are we just hearing about it and are other counties impacted? CBS13 is getting answers.

At UC Davis Health, which processes Sacramento County's COVID-19 tests, CEO Dr. David Lubarsky points to the company that makes the test kits they use.

"We cannot get those proprietary test kits from Roche. They have prioritized these large national labs, which, in my opinion, are failing in terms of timeliness," Lubarsky said.

He says while UC Davis Health can return local results in hours, some of the national labs that they are competing with for kits can take to six to eight days to return results do to centralized processing outside of local communities.

Lubarsky says UC Davis does have enough tests for their hospital patients and staff, but they currently only have enough tests for four days worth of widespread Sacramento county testing.

Sacramento is not the only county facing shortages and delays.

CBS13 Investigative Reporter Julie Watts learned that first hand after getting a COVID-19 test in Placer county.

She reports that it took her seven days to get an appointment through the county's website and another four days to get her results, after getting a text message saying they'd be delayed. Though Watts says the testing process itself was quick and the testing staff was helpful and knowledgeable on the day of the test.

Placer County, contracts with a national lab to process its tests. The lab tells CBS13 they do not use the same Roche testing kits as UC Davis.

However, Placer County acknowledges testing delays and shortages, telling CBS13 it is a statewide issue.

"One current challenge statewide is delays in test processing at commercial labs as testing demand has increased," said Placer County Health Officer Dr. Amy Sisson. "We and numerous other counties have communicated our concerns regarding the turnaround time to the state."

She adds, "sites have started to experience shortages of testing kits, which is also of concern. However, thus far, Public Health has been able to fill the gap by providing supplies."

This comes at a time when the daily number positive cases are up 44% since Friday in Placer County and that's not due to increased testing. It appears that Placer County is about to join at least 33 other counties on the state's watch list.

County health officers acknowledge the delayed test results are complicating contact tracing. Similar shortages and delays are being reported nationwide.

Why now?

"The answer is actually fairly simple," Lubarsky said. "We've seen an explosion of coronavirus cases." 

He says with more cases and more contact tracing, more people are getting tested and manufacturers can't keep up. That's leaving local health officials, labs, and hospitals to compete for test kits and priority processing.

"So it's a supply-demand issue nationwide?" Watts asked.

"It is, and the supply is unfortunately not being managed at the level that it needs to be managed, which is at the federal level," Lubarsky said.

Placer County is now sending emails to people who are tested acknowledging the delay and asking people with symptoms or a known exposure to quarantine while they wait for results.

Watts did not receive the email but did finally get her negative results back Monday, hours after getting a text message stating that her results would be delayed.

Roche, the company that makes the UC Davis test kits did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

The company that Placer County uses for its COVID-19 testing tells CBS13:

"As testing is becoming more available to Californians who want to get tested, lab turnaround times may also be also increasing for some. The state and Optum have been working closely to identify additional strategies to further streamline and improve turnaround times, and we are diversifying our lab partnerships in order to meet this increased demand for capacity."

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