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It's taking labs about 3 days on average to process COVID tests in Michigan

Jakayla Toney for Unsplash

Labs are taking an average of just under three days to process the nearly 900,000 COVID-19 tests performed in Michigan over the last two weeks, according to data the state began posting publicly just this week. 

It’s the clearest look so far at how long it’s taking each provider, from massive commercial labs in California to small strip mall urgent cares, to go from collecting a sample to the results being logged by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

But there’s a wide variability, with some large labs like the University of Michigan churning through tests within hours, to others that are apparently struggling to get their results processed by the state in time for them to be meaningful.

AFC Urgent Care, which operates sites in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids and processed 2,712 in the last two weeks, is averaging a turnaround time of 31 days. (An AFC office manager in Grand Rapids said they couldn’t immediately comment because they were busy handling patients and were under-staffed. The franchise owner did not return a request for comment Friday.)

Sports Drug Testing Laboratories, or SDTL, processed more just over 400 tests in the last two weeks, with an average of 60 days from sample collection to the results being processed by MDHHS. That's the longest by far listed on the state’s website. (An SDTL lab representative, who didn’t have permission to talk to reporters, said their labs have same-day turnaround for all clients.)

It's true that individual patients may be getting their test results back sooner than the state’s clock accounts for: Turnaround times on the MDHHS website are calculated by how long it takes for a lab’s results to be processed by the state, not how long until they’re received by a patient.

“Test results may be available to patients and/or providers sooner than the date they are received at MDHHS,” the site reads. “...MDHHS capacity processing time during extreme volume report days ... can result in some lag between submission and receipt.”

As demand for testing keeps growing, labs navigate supply shortages and exhaustion 

Two commercial labs, the startup Curative San Dimas and Michigan-based NXGEN, processed the most tests in the last two weeks. Curative processed 62,212 with a 1.78 day average turnaround time. NXGEN processed 54,182 COVID tests with a 2.99 day average.

Spectrum Health Advanced Technology Lab was third highest on the list, with 47,867 tests and a 2.84 day average. But Chad Tuttle, Spectrum’s senior vice president of Hospital Operations, says when you add the thousands of tests done at Spectrum’s other lab sites, they’re the biggest processor of COVID tests in the state.

“I think particularly with this second surge we're seeing in Michigan right now, we know that west Michigan seems to be getting hit hardest, earlier than the east side of the state,” Tuttle said Friday. “And so I do think that that's an element of the demand for testing at the moment. I think it is also reflective of just the sheer capacity. Because really, I think what you're hearing from almost all labs is they are all operating at really maximum capacity.”

The highest priority tests, like those done for patients coming into the emergency room, get processed fastest, Tuttle says.

“We will generally have those results in 30 to 45 minutes,” he says. “If somebody goes to one of our drives-thru collection sites, that's where you're seeing the results will generally be within 72 hours. Quite frankly, we get most of them within 48 hours. But if it’s [tests done for] our own employees who are caregivers, we will always have their results within 24 hours.”

But Spectrum, just like labs across the nation, says one of the main limitations their labs face are the ever-present supply shortages. Right now it’s “the little plastic pipettes you use in the processing of samples,” Tuttle says.

“We always work with our [manufacturing] partners to address the bottleneck,” he says. “But once we fix that bottleneck, something else will pop up to be a bottleneck.”

For Jim Richard, the director of Sparrow’s labs (which tested more than 33,000 tests in the last two weeks, with an average turnaround time of three days) the issue now is a lack of manpower.

“The single biggest challenge is getting qualified and trained testing personnel to be able to use the equipment that we have,” Richard said Friday. “I think that finding qualified individuals, clinical lab scientists that are able to do this work in the laboratory is the challenge. Many people look at a laboratory and say, ‘Well, don't they just take the blood of the specimen, and stick it in the machine? And all of a sudden it just comes out ready to go with a result?’ That's not the case.”

It’s not just the lab that’s short-staffed, Richard says.

“Our phone center has gotten phone calls like crazy, in order to process in excess of 2,000 specimens a day,” he says. “We have literally an army of people to open up the packages, make sure all of the information is correct, and read into the computer. And that's before it even gets started in the testing process.”

Workers are sprinting to keep up with growing testing demand, Richard says.

“We fell behind about three weeks ago, because it was just a burst of activity that was just beyond our capabilities,” he says. They’ve since caught up, cutting what was at one point a six-day turnaround back down to just three days.

“But there's hardly a day that goes by, where the pressure is such that somebody doesn't break down at one point in time or another, and just have to just walk away....

“Our call center people, more times than ever, people under stress [who call them] have a tendency to be rude or anxious. Because they're afraid. And they lash out at these individuals. And they our call center staff are professionals, and they just they take care of it. They do their best. And I think that all of these things are taking a toll.”

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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