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CBS13 Investigates: How Is California's New COVID Testing Lab Doing In Its First Week?

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — California's new $25 million coronavirus testing lab is supposed to revolutionize testing. The state's $1.7 billion contract with PerkinElmer requires the diagnostics company to return results out of the lab in 24 to 48 hours.

The lab went live this week. So, how did it do? CBS13 Investigative Reporter Julie Watts' family of four was among the first to put the new lab to the test. Their results varied greatly.


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Julie and her daughter got their COVID-19 test results in a little over 48 hours. Her son's results came back inconclusive and her husband still has not received his results, now 5 days after taking the test.

Watts' family took their COVID-19 tests on Monday at the same state-run OptumServe testing site they've used twice a month since July. However, this week was the first week the test specimens were sent to be processed at the new state lab.

UPDATE: State Confirms CBS13 Investigation: New State COVID Lab Processing Inconclusive Results

Testing Turnaround Time 

The two out of four of them who did receive their COVID-19 test results, got them Wednesday night. The results came in via email a little over 48 hours after they took the tests, or 2.1 days.

That's nearly double the time the state said "patients waited for test results" statewide before the new lab went live.

According to the most recent daily "COVID-19 Facts" press releases from the California Department of Health, "During the week of October 11 to October 17, the average time patients waited for test results was 1.2 days." The testing turnaround times cited by the state for the following weeks in October were 1.3 days.

CBS13 shared our results with Mark Pandori, the director of Nevada's public health lab. He was previously the public health lab director in San Francisco and Alameda counties.

"Nationally, two point one days is a very good turnaround time considering there's a very, very high demand for testing right now," Pandori said. "It's a new lab as well. It really might just be an adjustment period."

In response to our results, CDPH told CBS13, "The average turnaround time for test processing at the new lab is 24 hours. This does not include the time it takes to transport samples to the lab."

CDPH added, "The laboratory received 2,030 samples on November 2 and 854 results were sent out within 24 hours and the remaining 1,176 were sent out in under 39 hours."

CONTINUING COVERAGE: CBS13 Investigates Problems at California's COVID Testing Lab

Inconclusive Results

What about the inconclusive results?

Pandori says, generally speaking, an inconclusive result means the test was run at least twice and remained inconclusive.

"We do get inconclusive results, all labs do, it's just that they are rare," Pandori said.

Keep in mind, due to immune compromised family members, Watts' family has been getting tested at this facility at least twice a month since July and this is the first time any of them have had an inconclusive result.

"So, as an expert in this area, would you be concerned that this is the first inconclusive we've seen? [It's] the same facility, same staff. The only difference is the lab." Watts asked Pandori.

"Not if you only have one," he said. "But if we started to see a lot of inconclusive results, that might be a different story only because they are rare."

However, after going back to get a re-test Friday following the inconclusive result, Watts learned they were not the only family to get inconclusive results this week from the new lab.

In response to her son's inconclusive, the CDPH said, "There are many reasons why a test may be inconclusive. We cannot speculate what occurred in this particular incident but encourage those individuals receive an additional test."

The state did not immediately respond to CBS13's request for the total number of inconclusive results since the new lab went live on Monday.  We will update this story when the state provides that data.

UPDATE: State Confirms CBS13 Investigation: New State COVID Lab Processing Inconclusive Results

UPDATE 11/14/20:

Five days after Watts's son was retested, and nine days after his original inconclusive test, his re-test results also came back inconclusive.

Watts's husband finally received his results five days after his initial test. They were also inconclusive. He was still waiting for the re-test results five days after his retest. 

 As of this update, the new lab had still not provided either her son or her husband with conclusive results after 13 days and four tests combined.




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