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Coronavirus Test Results Are Still Taking Too Long, A Survey Shows


Today we have some sobering news about one of the most important weapons in the fight against the coronavirus - testing. A national survey of more than 50,000 people finds it is still taking far too long for most people to get their test results. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the details.

Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about what this survey found.

STEIN: Well, the survey did find some good news. Test results are coming back faster. The average turnaround time dropped from about four days back in April, when the researchers started their survey, to a little less than three days in September. And that's not all. Fewer people are waiting a really long time, like two weeks, to get their results, and more people are getting their results really fast, within 24 hours. So that's all good news.

SHAPIRO: So things are moving in the right direction, but it was - as we said at the top, it's still taking far too long for most people to get their results. What's the bad news here?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, so the bad news, according to these researchers, is that it's still taking way too long for most people. Only about a third of people getting tested are getting their results back within a day, which is what public health experts say you want to be able to stop the virus from spreading. And they're waiting three days on average to get results. It's just far too long for testing to help stop the relentless spread of the virus. And that's just how long people wait to get the results. It often takes a few days between the time people are told they need to get tested and they actually manage to get a test. So put it all together and it's taking almost a week to get tested and get the results for a lot of people.

Here's David Lazer from Northeastern, who's helping lead the survey.

DAVID LAZER: Even with the improved testing speed, there's almost a week lag between the time that they're told to get a test to where they might get a positive test. And at that point, much of the harm that could be done in spreading throughout that person's social network has already occurred. We need to do a lot better.

SHAPIRO: So after a person gets a positive test result, there's supposed to be this contact tracing, right? What does the national survey say about how that's going?

STEIN: Yeah, so that's more bad news from this survey. It found that only a little more than half of people who test positive ever hear from a health worker to find out who they may have had contact with so those people can be told to quarantine and get tested to find out if they caught the virus and, you know, to stop new outbreaks from occurring. Here's David Lazer again from Northeastern.

LAZER: In the ideal world, that would all go rat-a-tat-tat (ph) - you know, test, trace, contact, isolate, right? And that would all happen in a matter of a few days. That way, we don't have to have lockdowns if we can zoom in on the people who are most likely to be infecting other people.

SHAPIRO: Rob, as you've reported, from the very beginning of this pandemic, Black and Latino communities were harder hit than white communities. Is that still playing out with these results of this survey about testing and contact tracing?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, Ari, unfortunately, it is. The survey found that on average, Hispanics wait about a half day longer than whites and Asian Americans to get their test results, and Blacks wait almost a whole day longer. So that's just, you know, one more way that Blacks and Latinos are getting hit harder by this pandemic, and it could be contributing to the disparities that we've been seeing all along.

SHAPIRO: What are the federal officials from the Trump administration who are leading the fight against the pandemic saying about this?

STEIN: You know, so I got a statement from federal health officials, you know, late today defending the administration's testing efforts. The statement says the federal government has given states billions of dollars to bolster their testing and has invested millions to develop new tests and distributing millions - tens of millions of new fast tests to provide results in minutes. They also say turnaround times have fallen and argued that an average turnaround time of just under three days is sufficient as long as people follow CDC guidelines to isolate when they've been exposed to the virus or have symptoms and are careful to take other steps, you know, like wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.