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University of Michigan: We'll be able to do our own COVID-19 testing in two to three weeks


The University of Michigan's health system says it should be able to test for the coronavirus in its own, on-site laboratories in the coming weeks, hopefully allowing for faster results than are currently available through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services state lab or commercial labs. 

“We're hoping in the next few weeks, the next couple of weeks, to be live and ready to go,” Duane Newton, director of the clinical microbiology lab at Michigan Medicine, said Friday. “But the exact time frame is not entirely clear.... Each day, you know, tomorrow is dependent upon what happens today. And we have a number of staff that are dedicated specifically to this task. And we know more each day, that we're moving forward and progressing very well.”

At the moment, most healthcare providers in Michigan are sending samples from patients suspected to have the virus to the state lab, a process that requires first going through their local health department (including a department interview with the provider to make sure they’ve ruled out other illnesses, like the seasonal flu, and filling out forms.) If approved by the state lab, the provider then sends testing samples to the state lab via courier.  

As of Friday evening, the state health department listed 172 patients’ (or Person Under Investigation, aka PUI) samples as “approved for testing,” while 205 had been found negative for COVID-19. Twenty-five people tested positive for the virus, while another 26 results were listed as still pending. 

While an MDHHS spokesperson didn’t respond to Michigan Radio’s question about how long the turnaround time currently is for testing at the state lab, one county health department spokesperson says the time they’re seeing is fairly fast. 

“Once the specimen is received at the state lab, it’s four or five hours,” says Susan Cerniglia, spokesperson for the Washtenaw County Health Department. “If we know that it’s up there at 10 in the morning ... we’d get results by the end of the day.” 

Commercial testing is also available through companies like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, but staff at Michigan branches of both companies say the current turnaround time is roughly 3-4 days. 

So being able to test for COVID-19 at a hospital or healthcare center’s own laboratories would be an improvement, Newton says. 

“These are complicated and sophisticated tests that right now have to be done in a clinical lab that has the right kinds of technical capabilities,” he says.

While Newton says it’s too soon to estimate how many tests they’ll be able to process in a day, he says it’s important to understand that hospitals promising “drive-through” tests likely still have to go through the state lab or similary complex processes. 

“That term “drive-up” or “drive-through” testing is being put out there, and I think the assumption is that you're driving up, you get a specimen collected, you have a test done, and you get your results and you drive away,” he says. And that's no nowhere near what the reality is. That's not even near what the capability is.”

What’s really happening, Newton says, is that those prospective patients are are being “managed quickly ... so that the specimen is collected and then can get to the lab for the testing to be done.... That still takes hours and is complicated.” 

Michigan Medicine’s lab isn’t alone in building the capabilities to test for COVID-19 on site. TheFDAreleased detailed guidance for “Diagnostics Testing in Laboratories Certified to Perform High Complexity Testing ... for Coronavirus Disease-2019 during the Public Health Emergency” two weeks ago. Already, the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and other facilities are using the guidance to do their own testing, and Newton says he’s confident other Michigan academic and clinical labs will be doing so, too. 

“I'm sure we're not the only ones in Michigan.... My expectation is that there are others that are also working on this,” he says. “And we all have high degrees of technical capability and are equally challenged by this process. And that's why you haven't seen anything come up from anybody really, really quickly. Because it is a difficult, difficult process to go through.” 


Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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