Georgia sees testing system strained with rise in COVID-19 cases

Amid Georgia's new surge in coronavirus cases, the increased demand for testing is straining the state's infrastructure, leading to longer waits in some places and complaints from residents of delayed results.

Georgia officials stress the state has the capacity to accommodate testing for all who want it, a far cry from the early weeks of the pandemic when tests were rationed. Generally, public health officials say, residents can get an appointment within a day or so and results are available within a few days to a week.

But a half-dozen patients who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they had to wait upward of a week to book appointments in some areas, and patients and doctors told the AJC that lab results sometimes take a week or longer, leaving undiagnosed people in limbo.

Some top hospital officials say they are concerned about demand for testing nationally outpacing capacity as the U.S. reports record numbers of new cases daily. This could lead to shortages of critical testing supplies and overwhelm the labs that process samples, as happened early in the pandemic. Already, national trade groups for long-term care facilities said that the time it is taking to get results is hurting the homes’ ability to fight the virus.

Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s largest lab companies, warned this week that demand nationally has reached “unprecedented levels,” slowing results. Though labs are working to boost capacity, a national trade group for major lab companies said that testing demand in the coming weeks “will likely exceed members’ testing capacities.”

The U.S. is processing about a half-million tests per day, but a Harvard Global Health Institute report this week for NPR said about 4.3 million tests per day might be needed nationally to suppress the outbreak. Georgia has processed about 16,000 tests per day over the past week, but the Harvard report said Georgia might need about four times that amount to mitigate spread and about 15-times that amount to suppress it.

Dr. Jonathan Lewin, CEO of Emory Healthcare, which operates hospitals and clinics across metro Atlanta, said testing availability in Georgia is much improved since the early days of the pandemic. Emory and its hospitals and clinics are well-supplied and run their own tests, conducting about 1,100 molecular diagnostic tests per day, as well as rapid tests in some locations.

But during a conference call with reporters Wednesday, he said that not everyone who wants a test can get it easily.

“They all can eventually get it, but there’s been a delay as the demand for testing increases,” Lewin said.

Julie Puckett, who lives in Marietta, said she sought a test last week after developing fever, a severe cough and other symptoms consistent with the virus. Puckett is immunocompromised and has guarded against exposure.

Puckett said she tried to book an appointment at her local health department, but none were available for a week. She waited in a long line of cars outside an urgent care before being turned away when she learned she needed an appointment. She returned early the next morning, but all the slots were quickly taken.

Puckett said she tried the same urgent care the following morning and secured a reservation only to be turned away after the facility said it was done testing for the day.

“It started to be a Sisyphean episode when I never get tested and keep waiting and waiting,” she said. On Sunday, Puckett said she secured an appointment at a CVS drive-thru and got a test, but as of Wednesday morning was still awaiting results.

Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health (DPH), said Georgia is not currently suffering from a lack of supplies, though she said that could change if the increased pace of testing continues. Testing remains available for people with or without symptoms at government testing centers.

“We are not at the point of testing only individuals with symptoms,” Nydam said in an email. “The department will do everything possible to continue to provide testing to everyone regardless of symptoms since we know asymptomatic transmission is occurring and because widespread testing is critical to contact tracing and mitigating hot spots or areas of high infection.”

Nydam said the Georgia Public Health Lab and Ipsum Diagnostics based in Sandy Springs, which is used by many local health districts, can process tests in two to four days. Tests processed by major companies such as LabCorp and Quest might take four to five days, she said.

In the outbreak's early days in February and March, Georgia rationed testing to the very sick, health workers, first responders and people who lived in congregant settings. By April, Georgia ranked near the bottom of the nation in testing per capita.

Testing ramped up dramatically after Gov. Brian Kemp activated the Georgia National Guard and forged a partnership between major research universities and the state to launch a statewide testing network. State and local agencies also have deployed pop-up test sites at long-term care homes and other areas of need.

In recent weeks, DPH has largely absorbed that capacity, though.

Nydam said there are 160 state-run sample collection sites across Georgia and the state’s local health directors “are evaluating daily the need for additional sites based on the number of cases, contacts identified and areas with increased infections.”

Georgia reported a new high of 2,946 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, out of about 22,000 tests processed.

Georgia has reported an average of about 16,000 tests processed per day, mostly by private labs, since June 20.

Health care providers and businesses that offer testing are also evaluating their capacity.

Cars line up Wednesday at the COVID-19 testing center at Greenforest Community Baptist Church in Decatur. 

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CVS recently closed its Georgia Tech rapid testing site, but it offers 86 drive-thru test sites across the state. The pharmacy chain is seeing an increased demand for testing in states like Georgia that are seeing a rise in new cases, said spokesman Joe Goode.

CVS, he said, is “presently evaluating the growing demand for more testing and developing plans to expand where we can provide that support.”

The Fulton Board of Health said testing has increased at least 100 percent at its south and central locations, and 200 percent in Alpharetta.

In DeKalb County, the board of health reported conducting an average of about 384 tests per weekday the first week of June. On Tuesday, DeKalb reported conducting 1,784 tests.

Cobb & Douglas Public Health has added lanes to its test site at Jim Miller Park west of Marietta and has seen increased demand at that site and another at the Douglas Public Health Center. Last week, the district recorded the highest number of reported cases since the pandemic began.

The district has expanded testing capacity and added extra testing inventory, said spokeswoman Valerie Crow. Still, she said in an email, “the extra appointments are going as quickly as we post them.”

Dr. Phillip Coule, vice president and chief medical officer for Augusta University Health System, said testing demand at the hospital’s two drive-thru sites is higher now than in the pandemic’s earlier peak. Some of that is driven by people without symptoms seeking tests for travel and or kids for sports and summer camps. But, cases also are climbing, and hospitalization rates are up in Augusta like elsewhere in the state.

AU Health is now considering using a former garage for a more permanent testing facility.

“This is going to be a need for the foreseeable future, probably at least for the next year or longer,” Could said.

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