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Sens. Warren, Smith press major labs over coronavirus testing delays as flu season approaches

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith pressed five of the nation’s largest testing labs over delays in processing coronavirus tests as the flu season approaches.

Labs across the country have struggled to keep pace with the rapid rise of coronavirus cases earlier this summer, leading to long lines at testing centers and turnaround times of more than a week for some patients. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said that long turnaround times render coronavirus tests a “complete waste” because it takes so long to get results that people can’t self-isolate once they find out they have the virus.

“Delayed test results and the inability to conduct enough tests seriously weakens the country’s efforts to combat the pandemic. Delays in results can obfuscate public health officials’ view of the virus and how it is spreading, hindering their ability to respond effectively and, in turn, prolonging the pandemic,” the senators wrote in five letters sent Wednesday to the nation’s biggest lab companies. The letters were viewed by CNBC. “While testing numbers and turnaround times have improved in recent weeks, it is imperative we take steps now to prevent future delays and backlogs.”

Public health officials such as Dr. Ashish Jha, professor of global health at Harvard University, have echoed Gates’ concerns. A survey run between July 30 and Aug. 10 by CNBC in partnership with Dynata, a global data and survey firm, suggested that almost 40% of Americans at the time had to wait more than three days for their results, rendering them clinically useless, by Jha and others’ definitions.

The Democratic senators expressed concern about testing challenges in states that were hit particularly hard by the virus this summer such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California.

“Tens of thousands flocked to testing sites in these states and across the country, and labs and local officials struggled to keep pace,” they wrote. “Public health officials have even been forced to turn away patients from testing sites and re-impose testing restrictions.”

Warren, D-Mass., and Smith, D-Minn., sent letters to Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp, the Mayo Clinic, BioReference Labs and ARUP Labs. In the letters, the senators asked each of the companies to tell them the current turnaround time for coronavirus testing, maximum daily capacity as well as their turnaround time and capacity during July and August.  They also asked the companies to let them know if they’ve faced any shortages in supplies needed to process Covid-19 tests.

Quest, LabCorp and Mayo Clinic confirmed that they received the letter and are reviewing it. Representatives of BioReference Labs and ARUP Labs did not return CNBC’s request for comment.

Testing turnaround time has improved since the peak of the U.S. outbreak. Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, who leads the Trump administration’s testing effort, said on Wednesday that the “the turnaround time issue is essentially solved.”  He added that there may be “outliers,” but more than 91% of tests processed by labs tracked by the agency returned results within three days. The mean turnaround time for August so far is 2.43 days, he said.

But the senators said that as flu season settles in and the same labs work double-time to process tests for both flu and Covid-19, it “may again strain labs’ ability to perform and deliver test results in a timely manner.”

“Policymakers and the public need to better understand the reasons for delayed testing results and declining test numbers, and the resources needed to guarantee the timely delivery of results so the nation can continue its work to combat the pandemic and, where the virus is well-controlled, safely reopen,” the senators wrote.

Many public health specialists and epidemiologists have repeatedly said that widespread and rapid testing for the coronavirus is critical to driving the U.S. response. Early testing allows health officials to trace contacts and cut off chains of transmission before they spill over into uncontrolled outbreaks, specialists say.

While coronavirus testing has ramped up considerably since the beginning of the outbreak, it has fallen in recent weeks, as have new cases. United States testing peaked in late July, when the country was averaging about 822,000 tests per day on July 29, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project. Testing has declined since, with the seven-day average of daily tests at 679,000 as of August 25.

Epidemiologists say this drop in testing has made it difficult to know precisely where the virus is spreading and how rapidly. 

As labs begin to test for seasonal influenza, which has some of the same early symptoms as Covid-19, it could create new testing complications, Dr. Michael Mina, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said. He added that flu tests and currently available Covid-19 tests both depend on “a lot of the exact same instruments.”

— CNBC’s Nate Rattner and Meg Tirrell contributed to this report.

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