Nationwide coronavirus test backlog leaves tens of thousands in "constant worry"

U.S. sees severe COVID-19 testing backlog

Tens of thousands of coronavirus tests are still pending because of a nationwide backlog affecting hospitals and health labs, CBS News' Jericka Duncan reports. Quest Diagnostics tells CBS News it is still working to clear 80,000 tests it is behind on, while Michigan resident Mike Hoffer said he was left waiting for over a week before his family finally got his results.

"I think you want to know what's going on with your body and then what you might be facing, you know, further ahead," Hoffer told CBS News.

His wife, Lisa Hoffer, described the stressful eight days that preceded the diagnosis.

"You're in this constant worry of, you know, is he going to wake up in the morning? Is he going to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air?" she said.

She added that the lack of information left family and friends wondering if they were exposed, unsure of how to proceed. "Not only can we not get answers, but we can't give answers to our employers, to our friends, to our family, people that we had been around in the couple weeks before," she said. 

The Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General released a survey of hospital administrators Monday, which said delays in testing could lead to a waste of valuable resources. Acting Chair of Laboratory Medicine at UW Medicine in Seattle Dr. Geoff Baird said that testing helped them manage the availability of hospital beds and personal protective equipment, both of which are experiencing a critical shortage across the U.S. 

"When it comes down to lab testing, turnaround time is PPE," he said. "For the hospitalized patient or the patient evaluated in the emergency room or clinic, we need to treat all of those patients when they come in as if they had it, because if they do, we need to be protected. And if they don't, we could then relax our PPE standards." 

Baird claimed his hospital's in-house testing can produce results within hours, enabling them to accurately allocate the necessary resources. 

However, the Washington state hospital is much more of an exception than a standard. In California, over 14,000 people are awaiting COVID-19 test results from both private and public labs. Many other states have yet to report specific numbers on their backlogs at all. 

The COVID Tracking Project, inspired by the various data inconsistencies, aims to centralize all of the national information in one place. 

"We feel like if you're part of the national response to this epidemic, then you owe the nation transparency," said Alexis Madrigal, the project's co-founder. "What we need from them is not perfection, but transparency, honesty and openness." 

Quest Diagnostics said the testing backlog it was dealing with was largely because demand outpaced capacity. The company tells CBS News it has increased the number of labs its using to perform COVID-19 tests from one lab the week of March 9 to 12 labs by the end of March. Quest now reports average turnaround times of one to three days.

Another national lab, LabCorp, told CBS News that, as of Sunday, it was able to clear its backlog of COVID-19 tests. The company says it has been delivering results in four to five days.

Together, LabCorp and Quest report they have run more than one million tests nationwide.