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Georgia announces surge coming in coronavirus test processing

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office and the state’s public colleges and universities on Tuesday announced plans to dramatically increase coronavirus testing capacity in Georgia by some 3,000 tests per day.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday said that Georgia now has new equipment and supplies that will allow university facilities and the state’s public health lab to significantly increase the number of coronavirus tests processed, a critical step in combating the pandemic.

So far, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows, the state has ranked near the bottom in the U.S. in testing per capita.

However, the state’s public health lab and labs at Augusta University, Emory and Georgia State will be able to handle 3,000 coronavirus tests per day, Kemp said. That new capacity is expected to be fully available in the next five to seven days.

A national shortage of kits and other testing supplies and lab processing capacity has resulted in rationing of coronavirus tests throughout Georgia and across the U.S. The new processing capacity will allow the state and university labs to deliver results to hospitals and public health agencies faster. Lessening the lag time for results will give officials a clearer picture of the virus' spread.

Though the news release said testing capacity will expand, the state did not say if this new processing capacity will allow testing to be broadened beyond current restrictions.

Limited testing — both statewide and across the country — has hampered the U.S. response to COVID-19, denying officials the information needed to determine how prevalent the virus is, health experts told the AJC. Because it's unclear how many cases there are, and where, governments have been forced to issue sweeping orders closing schools and businesses and restricting movement, expert say.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

In a statement, Kemp said “adequate testing for COVID-19 has continued to be a top priority for the Coronavirus Task Force as we fight this pandemic.”

“We hope this surge capacity plan will allow federal and state public health officials to gain a more complete picture of COVID-19’s impact on Georgia and better inform our collective decisions going forward,” he said.

The expanded test processing, a collaboration between the University System of Georgia, Emory and state agencies, also will come with improvements to the supply chain to make it more resilient to disruptions.

As of noon Tuesday, the state public health lab and commercial labs combined had processed only 16,181 tests of Georgians. An AJC analysis of national testing data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project found Georgia ranked 43rd per capita in testing and 11th overall in total number of confirmed cases.

Spokespeople for Kemp did not immediately answer questions concerning why Georgia has lagged other states in testing.

On Twitter, Cody Hall, a Kemp spokesman, said testing in Georgia had been stymied by a “combination of lack of private sector vendors for testing supplies and dozens of states requesting more from feds.”

An electronic sign outside a COVID-19 testing center in Cobb County warns motorists “No Public Testing.” Cobb & Douglas Public Health opened the drive-through testing center on March 18, 2020, for high-risk people by referral only. (J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM)
An electronic sign outside a COVID-19 testing center in Cobb County warns motorists “No Public Testing.” Cobb & Douglas Public Health opened the drive-through testing center on March 18, 2020, for high-risk people by referral only. (J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM)

But all states are confronting similar issues. The AJC analysis shows that Georgia lags behind all but eight states and Puerto Rico on a per capita basis.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State School of Public Health, said the new capacity will help overcome a backlog of pending tests. But, he said, the slow rollout of testing has allowed the virus to spread across the state.

“Performing an adequate number of tests to understand the extent of the problem is critical to decision-making,” Heiman said. “Mounting an appropriate public health response requires accurate data on the impact of the disease across the state. We’ve been flying blind for a long time. I don’t understand why we’re behind so many other states.”

Heiman said the state needs to impose greater restrictions on public movement to help curb the outbreak.

Overcoming the backlog 

Georgia’s public health agencies and health systems have been rationing tests, directing that they be performed on only the very sick, those who live in group setting such as nursing homes, and emergency and health workers.

Kemp and top Georgia hospitals have urged people with mild to moderate symptoms not to seek tests and to ride out their illnesses in isolation at home. That was, in part, to preserve testing supplies and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

That advice appears likely to remain in place, at least for now.

Kemp’s office did not immediately answer whether the state will be able to expand availability of tests to a broader portion of the population.

Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Emory epidemiologist, said Tuesday’s announcement shows Kemp is making testing a priority.

March 24, 2020 Albany - A medical professional in protective equipment (left) collects a sample from a potential COVID-19 patient at a Phoebe Putney Health System drive-through testing site in Albany on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Well off the interstate some 180 miles south-southwest of Atlanta, Albany's struggles with the Coronavirus stick out like a sore thumb on the state's map, as small towns in the region like Americus and Sylvester reported their first cases of the virus on Friday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
March 24, 2020 Albany - A medical professional in protective equipment (left) collects a sample from a potential COVID-19 patient at a Phoebe Putney Health System drive-through testing site in Albany on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Well off the interstate some 180 miles south-southwest of Atlanta, Albany's struggles with the Coronavirus stick out like a sore thumb on the state's map, as small towns in the region like Americus and Sylvester reported their first cases of the virus on Friday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But Del Rio said now is not the time for healthy people anxious about the disease to seek tests as the state works to clear its backlog of pending tests.

Georgia health systems and patients have complained to the AJC of one- to two-week waits to receive results of coronavirus tests, much of the data that has trickled in so far is days old.

It’s unclear how many tests are pending at private labs. One Middle Georgia public health district recently reported an eight- to-nine-day delay in receiving tests results.

The state also has not published a count of its test backlog, as other states have done. A state Department of Public Health spokeswoman has said only that it takes 24 hours to 72 hours, including shipping, for its lab to process tests.

Hospitals must treat all presumed COVID-19 patients as if they have the disease and hold them in strict isolation for days as they await results. That means, if patients turn out to not have the disease, precious resources have been diverted from confirmed coronavirus victims.

“You need real-time data,” Del Rio said. “Real-time data is the only way to stop the spread of this infection.”

Del Rio said South Korea leads the world in testing on a per capita basis at about 1 percent of its population. The U.S., by contrast, has tested about 1 million of its 330 million, or about one-third of 1 percent of the population.

After a slow start, testing has grown in the U.S., where more total tests have been performed overall than in any other nation.

“This is a national problem. It’s not just a Georgia problem,” Del Rio said. “Quite frankly, every state has been late.”