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Why does it take so long to get COVID-19 test results?

When COVID-19 testing first became available in March, providers had to prioritize tests for those who met the criteria. People who believed they had symptoms may have had to wait for a test. This was frustrating for everyone.

Today, testing is more widely available, and the criteria has expanded. In addition, Pierce County’s mobile testing sites are making it possible for anyone who wants a test to request it.

Because the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests determine if somebody has active COVID-19 disease, it’s most helpful to get tested if you’re experiencing symptoms: fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea.

We also want to make sure people who are from communities experiencing higher rates of the disease get tested—Black/African American, Latinx, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native. And if you’ve been to any gatherings where people didn’t wear masks and didn’t maintain physical distancing, you should also get tested.

COVID test tube

With record levels of people getting tested, we are now experiencing challenges with lab capacity. The testing bottleneck is now all about lab capacity to evaluate the tests and get results reported. But if you got tested and are waiting a while to get your results, take it as a good sign.

People who have a positive test result hear from their healthcare provider, the laboratory, or the entity that administered the test usually within two business days.

It can take longer—sometimes a week or more—to get word of a negative test result. It’s important to take precautions until you get your results.

Remember: Laboratories are overwhelmed with tests to examine. The big national labs are processing hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 tests each day. But it’s not enough to keep up with demand.

It’s frustrating for everyone. We get many comments and calls about it daily. We understand, and we work with providers to inform them of where to send tests to help speed up the process.

If you went to one of Pierce County’s mobile testing sites to get tested, call Dispatch Health at (833) 723-0490 with questions about your results.

Positivity rate increasing.

With so many more people getting tested, we are getting a better picture of the level of disease in our community. Our higher number of positive COVID-19 cases is not only because more testing is happening. The percentage of tests with positive results also continues to rise.

In the middle of May, our positivity rate was a little over 2%. That means 2 out of every 100 people who got tested were positive. Today, we are at 6%, which means 6 out of every 100 people tested are positive.

COVID-19 affects every geographic area of our community—all age groups and all ethnic groups. Our daily case numbers hover around triple digits lately.

Traffic and cellphone mobility are up. People are out and about, getting exposed and exposing others. It might be at work, at a social gathering, during recreation, in a business, or at a demonstration. COVID-19 can spread anytime and anywhere people gather, even if the infected person does not feel sick.

Prioritizing tests.

Today, healthcare providers, pharmacies as well as local and regional laboratories struggle to keep up with demand for test results. Healthcare providers and labs are prioritizing based on capacity and test supplies.

The state also has set priorities on who should get a test. Some healthcare providers do not yet offer tests to everybody. You can contact your healthcare provider to see if you should be tested.

Another resource: everyone is welcome to get a test through Pierce County’s mobile testing sites. See the site for locations and schedule.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department also lists  all COVID-19 testing sites as well as the mobile testing dates and locations.

Help is on the way.

Pooling tests.

On July 18, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permitted Quest Diagnostics to do pool testing to save resources and speed up testing. Pool testing bundles four samples for evaluation at one time. If any one of the tests is positive, then all four are retested individually. If pooled samples come back negative, we consider all four samples to be negative.

As of July 21, Quest Diagnostics was the only laboratory approved for pool testing.

Local labs.

On July 17, we advised providers that instate labs were more likely to evaluate tests quicker than out-of-state labs. We strongly encouraged providers to use these labs for quicker turnaround times.

Feeling stressed?

Pandemics are difficult. We understand. We feel the stress too.

The state Department of Health’s Washington Listens line helps people manage stress and anxiety because of COVID-19. Their support specialists will listen to you and connect you to resources in the Pierce County area. Washington Listens support line is available at (833) 681-0211, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. TTY and language access services are available using 7-1-1 or another preferred method. Resources and self-help tips are available at walistens.org.

To see overall COVID-19 testing numbers for Pierce County, see the testing tabs on the Safe Start dashboard at tpchd.org/covid19cases.