The number of people getting tested for COVID-19 in Michigan is on the rise. But in order to maintain quick turnaround times for results — a prerequisite for an effective public health response — some of the labs that process those tests are turning away new clients.
Last week, Michigan was completing more than 24,000 COVID-19 tests a day, based on a rolling 7-day average. At the start of July, average daily testing was less than 17,000.
Lyle Rawlings, the technical supervisor at Trident Labs in Holland, says his facility has been returning results in 48 to 72 hours.
“We could bring in hundreds more specimens a day if we wanted to, but then our turnaround time would suffer,” he said. “And at that point, then it really becomes pointless.”
Some public health officials say results should come back after no more than 72 hours. Any longer, and it becomes difficult to perform contact tracing (which involves tracking down those who have come in contact with people who test positive) and to take other measures to control infection.
Rawlings and representatives from other labs in Michigan say the bulk of new demand comes from nursing homes, which have ramped up testing in order to comply with a June order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
That’s the case in Houghton, where a converted research lab at Michigan Tech is processing tests from five nursing homes, as well as other clients in the area. Compared to 50 tests a day in June, the lab now runs through more than 100 COVID-19 test specimens a day, five days a week.
According to Caryn Heldt, a chemical engineering professor who runs the lab, that’s pretty much the most they can do.
Heldt’s lab is one of the few processing COVID-19 tests in the Upper Peninsula, but it recently had to stop accepting specimens from hospital systems and drive-through sites for a full day in order to maintain its 36-hour turnarond time.
“A Quest lab, or a LabCorp lab — they’re using robots to do a lot of what we’re manually having people pipette,” she said.
But no matter how automated, those national labs may be making people wait the longest. Quest Diagnostics announced last week that across the U.S., the average turnaround time for non-priority tests was seven days or greater.
On Saturday, the Food and Drug Administration granted Quest an emergency use authorization to perform “specimen pooling” for up to four individuals' samples. The process saves resources by testing multiple people at once (if the pool tests positive, each individual will receive their own test).
One lab in Kalamazoo — Genemarkers — says it can both process more tests and maintain its turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours.
Anna Langerveld, Genemarkers’ Chief Scientific Officer, says the lab has been running COVID-19 tests since June, including for more than 20 nursing homes. Though she expects the lab to take on about 2,000 more tests this week (up from 3,500 last week), she says they can still accept more clients.
“We’re getting calls every day,” she said.
*Clarification: An earlier version of this post said Michigan Tech's lab was processing over 100 COVID-19 tests a day. The post now indicates that that's only for five days out of the week.