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I Waited 18 Days for a Covid Result. That Makes the Test Useless

A Left Voice editor waited 18 days for her Coronavirus test result. She is not the only one. Privatized healthcare is not working.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

August 17, 2020
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Image: Seth Wenig

I have just gotten my coronavirus test results: negative. But does it matter anymore? I was tested 18 days ago.

Yes — 18 days ago. To be clear, the recovery time for Covid-19 is 14 days. In other words, I could have had the virus, given it to everyone around me, and recovered by now, all before getting my test results. 

 And I’m not the only one: At the City MD where I was tested, there were signs saying that I shouldn’t expect my results for a week, which is already too long. After 11 days of waiting, I called City MD. A very kind nurse sounded concerned and apologetic. She said that the backlog was huge. She took down my number and said she’d contact me as soon as my results came in. 

This isn’t healthcare professionals’ fault. 

What’s worse is that my roommate is being called in to work in a school this week. She’s expected to meet with parents, teachers, and students amidst the push to reopen. If I had been positive during those 18 days it took to get my test result, there was serious potential for her to spread it to the whole school.  

The United States has surpassed 150,000 deaths and 5 million infected from the coronavirus. And in some areas of the country — Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere — the virus continues to rise. Still, there is a push to reopen the economy everywhere, and particularly to reopen schools, despite opposition from teachers. 

And still, it is impossible to get a timely test. 

“After about 48 hours, the test really isn’t that useful for the clinical management of the patient,” explains Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “At that point, you’re not going to be able to use the result to do effective contact tracing. Too much time has passed, and you’re not giving information back to the provider and the patient that they could use.”  

“It’s like having no testing” said Dr. Amir Jamali, an orthopedic surgeon who ordered swabs from ebay in order to test patients said. 

This testing backlog also skews reports of the numbers of people infected. It’s just not possible right now to get a quick sense of how many people have the virus because of the backlog of tests

In some states overrun by the virus, people wait for hours to get tested. Sometimes, people are even turned away because of these long lines — as has happened in Florida and Arizona. But the biggest backlog isn’t at testing sites. It’s at the labs. 

This comes after months of denial by the Trump administration that there is a testing problem. Who can forget Trump saying in March, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” He said that despite a  huge testing shortage. Even healthcare workers were not getting tested. He repeated the claim multiple times in briefings through May. And now, months later, there is still a testing crisis. 

Of course, this isn’t a technology problem. Some people are able to get tested, and quickly. A patient at a hospital showing severe symptoms can get a test turned around in a few hours to a day. Elsewhere, priority is given to people showing some symptoms or who know they have been in contact with someone with Covid-19. Prioritization is, of course, valid, but it’s no excuse for an 18-day wait. 

There are also asymptomatic people who get tested quickly and easily. All the sports teams currently playing are being tested every other day and get results in a a day or less.  Major League Baseball created its own lab to get tests done quickly. This quick turnaround has led to the postponement of many games as players have tested positive for the virus.

Few students or teachers will have access to quick testing and a quick turnaround as schools are forced to reopen. In Virginia, Roanoke-Alleghany Health District Director Dr. Molly O’Dell says that students and teachers may have to wait up to 14 days to get test results. And as we’ve already seen, schools are going to spread the virus: almost 100,000 kids contracted Covid-19 during the first week of school — and those are just the ones who got their test results. 

Although it seems that demand for tests has been on the decline over the past few days, the breakdown in testing matters as the bipartisan push to reopen the economy and force people back to school gains momentum. The United States is not equipped to test and trace systematically. This country is just not equipped to reopen. 

Why is this happening? 

Disjointed and Privatized Testing 

There is an ongoing shortage of testing supplies — kits, reagents, pipettes. It’s a merry-go-round of shortages … Just when we think we’ve dealt with one issue, another challenge pops up,” Karissa Culbreath, scientific director of infectious diseases at a New Mexico lab told the New York Times. In mid-July,  20 percent of 72 institutions surveyed by the Association of Public Health Laboratories indicated they would run out of at least one items needed for testing within a week. 

There are also logistical delays in collective and transporting samples, as well as on returning results to people. USA Today claims, “Some health departments have eight workers calling patients for up to 12 hours a day.”

Amanda Aguire, who runs nonprofit clinics in Arizona, recounted some horror stories she’s had to face. In mid-June, LabCorp ran out of test kits. Weeks later, the delivery company failed to deliver the tests quickly. In mid-July, a clinic staffer had to drive more than 100 miles to a rendezvous point in the desert to pick up test kits from a LabCorp representative who had driven an hour and a half as well. 

Because of this disjointed system, David Grenache, chief scientific officer of a New Mexico lab, says, “We’re all still competing against each other like the Hunger Games for critical supplies.” Some hospitals have been forced to  their own chemicals. Some states are seeking supplies from other countries. “It’s the Wild, Wild West,” said Blair Holladay, CEO of the American Society for Clinical Pathology. “There’s been no national testing strategy … so states are duking it out for supply chains.” The same is true for individual labs. 

Testing labs are being ove-run by the huge backlog for processing these tests and a lack of trained technicians. The fact that testing involves a mix of commercial, public, and hospital labs makes it impossible to know the average wait time, much less coordinate testing among labs. 

The lack of organization is astounding: labs don’t communicate with each other, so there is no centralized coordination. A recent Vanity Fair article describes ta plan that was in the works by Jared Kushner and a team of businessmen and friends that “would have set up a system of national oversight and coordination to surge supplies, allocate test kits, lift regulatory and contractual roadblocks, and establish a widespread virus surveillance system by the fall, to help pinpoint subsequent outbreaks.” But it didn’t happen — as has now been widely reported — because Kushner concluded that  Covid-19 was going to remain a problem in the “blue states” where it had first broken out. His political solution was to let governors worry about it, because that would help Trump. And so, what we have now is an unorganized network of testing labs that don’t communicate, and with no one in charge of testing and coordination. 

Despite that tests are free to the public, diagnostic labs are making tons of money. Congress authorized billions of dollars to private-sector labs to do testing. In fact, in mid-April, the federal government used Medicare funding to pay labs $100 for each “high-throughput” test, nearly double the $51 per test paid in the early days of the pandemic. This was meant as an incentive to get labs to process more tests at a faster rate.  

This translates into huge profits for private labs. Labcorp beat expectations to rake in second-quarter profits of $231.6 million. The typical LabCorp Lab Assistant makes $14 per hour, while the CEO is expected to make more than $12.5 million this year. Meanwhile, working-class people are struggling to make ends meet, and a huge homelessness crisis is on the verge of occurring. Private companies are making a killing off of a pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the country — and the world. 

Nationalized Testing Under Worker Control 

Given the massive testing shortage, one way forward proposed by Joshua Sharfstein, a professor and vice dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is financial incentives for labs. “Financial incentives would help to get more tests done quickly,” he says. “Additional funding to guarantee the market would also help to grow capacity for testing over time.” 

While the government refuses to pass a measly $600 supplement to unemployment payments, some believe that offering these multi-million dollar labs “financial incentives” to test quickly is the only way forward. It’s not. 

It’s clear that the illogical system of private ownership and disjointed labs isn’t working. A national crisis of this sort makes clear why centralized planning is necessary. National resources must be directed to the most affected areas. In other words, this requires nationalization of production and testing. Factories that produce needed equipment should be nationalized. Other production sites should be converted to support the effort, if necessary. Testing labs should be nationalized, with centralized coordination of all testing nationwide. There needs to be a national testing plan that allows for testing, tracing and isolating— which includes paid time off for all workers who come in contact with people who test positive for COVID. 

Further, labs shouldn’t be making huge profits in the midst of a huge economic crisis and pandemic, so nationalize them, too. We need testing that is not about the profits of the labs, but about serving every person who needs a test. 

This moment requires a jobs program around both the production of supplies, the execution of tests, and the processing of test results. Millions of people are unemployed right now. Let’s offer jobs that provide protection from the virus, job training in lab work, a good wage, and paid time off for anyone who might be exposed to the virus. That’s how we can fight the pandemic. 

Of course, nationalization under the control of Trump and Kushner won’t work. They don’t take the virus seriously. They don’t care about the working class dying if that’s what it takes to get the capitalist economy going again. They know it’s the working class that makes the profits they defend.  

This nationalization has to be under workers’ control — especially the nurses and doctors struggling to get patients tested and who understand what is needed to fight the virus. They’ve been fighting it for months. As Left Voice member Tre Kwon said in an interview on CBS, bosses are not essential, workers are. While the bosses are hiding away in their second or third homes, workers are battling the virus.Workers are the key to a national plan that really aims to beat the virus, not line the pockets of capitalists. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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