LIMA — Want to get tested for COVID-19? It may take a few days to learn the results.
The Lima News asked local hospitals and health clinics how long patients can expect to wait for their COVID-19 test results, which can take anywhere from several hours to five days to be returned, depending on where the person was tested and what lab the clinic relies on to process results.
Mercy Health-St. Rita’s reported the fastest turnaround time, with the average patient learning their results within 48 hours of being tested. Some patients even learn their results within hours.
Lima Memorial Health System reported similar turnaround, with results expected within 72 hours, while Health Partners of Western Ohio said results are typically returned within four to five days after a test is administered — nearly twice as long as in June, when the clinic first offered COVID-19 drive-up testing at the Bradfield Community Center.
“As people continue to have more and more testing done, it’s going to take longer and longer,” said Elizabeth West, chief operations officer for Health Partners of Western Ohio.
One reason for the difference: Health Partners sends its collection kits to a single lab, LabCorp, while Lima Memorial and St. Rita’s have their own on-site laboratories, allowing the hospitals to process at least some of their COVID-19 collections internally at a time when many labs across the U.S. are experiencing backlogs.
The U.S. has been administering more than 700,000 COVID-19 tests per day since the start of August, according to the COVID Tracking Project. In Ohio, that number has fluctuated between 17,000 and 25,000, with about 5 percent of those tests coming back positive in August.
“That stresses the entire supply chain of this stuff,” said Dr. Shelley Odronic, head of microbiology for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s.
To keep turnaround times down, Odronic said she works with several outside labs when the hospital is unable to process collection kits in-house. But results still vary by patient.
The hospital prioritizes in-house testing for its most sick patients, who learn their diagnosis within hours, while others may wait a few days.
Delayed results make it difficult to identify active COVID-19 infections, which complicates efforts to identify and isolate people while they are still contagious and further delays the contact tracing process.
Can you trust the results?
While false positives are rare, Odronic said false negatives are more common because a person may be tested too early or too late into their infection, when a person’s viral RNA is harder to detect.
But there are several different types of COVID-19 diagnostic tests, which look for active infections.
The most popular is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is used by testing centers in Lima and is considered the most reliable of the diagnostic tests.
Less common is the antigen test — the test Gov. Mike DeWine took last Thursday before he was scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump. It is thought to be less sensitive than the PCR. But Odronic said less is known about antigen tests at this time, so it’s hard to assess its reliability.
“That’s why when you take these test results,” Odronic said, “they’re always in the context of the patient: what symptoms is the patient having; when was their exposure; when was the onset of symptoms, in order to figure out (whether) retesting might help.”