ATLANTA — Fed up with COVID-19 test results taking many days — even weeks — to get back from the lab, a group of state governors this week announced they plan on purchasing hundreds of thousands of rapid tests that provide a result in minutes.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray found out that Georgia is not one of the states focusing on those rapid tests and wanted to know why.
For Andrea Skarpness, it’s now been nearly four weeks since she went for a COVID-19 test after suffering a mild fever.
“For two weeks, I did nothing. I was self-quarantining because I thought it was the right thing to do,” Skarpness said.
“Still, as of today, no results for your tests?” Gray asked Skarpness.
“No results,” she said.
It was a different story for Leah Bell, who got a rapid point-of-contact test at Peachtree Immediate Care.
“I was just sitting in the parking lot about 20 minutes waiting for my results, but the whole process was pretty quick. I was surprised,” Bell said.
That speed of results is why this week, six state governors — Republican and Democrat — from Virginia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Maryland have entered into a compact to purchase large numbers of rapid tests.
“These tests are faster, smaller and less expensive,” said Gov. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.
Two companies are selling rapid tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They are antigen tests that work with a nose swab, just like the traditional Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved tests.
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The Rockefeller Foundation is working with the states in the compact to obtain the rapid tests.
“Right now, we have a problem in that the tests that are being done are effectively worthless, in that the results are coming back so slowly,” said Eileen O’Connor with the Rockefeller Foundation.
“The trade-off is that we’re exchanging speed for some accuracy,” said Dr. Ted Ross, director of vaccines and immunology at the University of Georgia.
Ross told Gray that the antigen tests are slightly less accurate than the traditional CDC lab tests, but that speed of results is maybe more important right now.
“If you are talking about a crowded classroom, or you’re talking about colleges returning here this month, having a very rapid test that identifies those people that are positive is a good thing because you can then find out who they have been in contact with,” Ross said.
But instead of a big purchase of rapid tests, state and local officials in Georgia have been focusing on speeding up the results for their current testing.
Public health leaders say as of this week, the long waits of last month are getting better.
Dr. David Holland from the Fulton County Board of Health told Gray they've gone from a wait time of 10-plus days to just two.
“We’ve got some extra lab capacity now. And with some new systems we’ve got in place, our turnaround times are down to about two days,” Holland said.
The state of Georgia also signed a deal on July 20 with a company called Mako Medical to provide 10,000 tests a day with a 48-hour turnaround for results.
But many private labs are still backed up. Quest Diagnostics reported it averages a turnaround of five days.
Dr. Emily Volk from the College of American Pathologists said the supply chain continues to be a problem.
“There have been issues, as we’ve all read about across the country, with having the appropriate amount of ingredients to run the test and the equipment,” Volk said.
The rapid tests don't require a lab. But the Georgia Department of Public Health is concerned that rapid tests could provide false negatives.
The department sent Gray a statement, stating: “As with any new test, sometimes the science has to catch up with the technology, so there are some concerns about the accuracy of these tests.”
But Georgia is using the rapid tests in nursing homes to test for the virus. The states and organizations banding together to expand rapid tests say other states could join the efforts in the future.
“There is potential to add more states, and there are mayors of major urban areas looking to join,” Ross said.
“The Governor, Dr. Toomey and members of the Coronavirus Task Force continue to explore a variety of ways to increase testing capacity, collection, and processing in Georgia - including point of care testing. We will announce additional steps on the testing front in the coming days,” Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said in a statement.
The rapid tests have about a 90% accuracy rate, which is less than the lab test, but they are much cheaper and much faster.
Gray talked to the CEO of Peachtree Immediate Care, where it has been using these rapid tests as its primary testing for all its locations.
He said the tests have been effective for patients. But as a backup, staff members perform a traditional test when people are showing symptoms and get a negative test.
That’s the same advice Gray heard from public health experts as well.
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