Dozens of COVID-19 samples lost, thousands delayed from metro testing sites, investigation finds

ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News has learned that dozens of COVID-19 tests have been lost while the state rushed to process thousands of delayed tests. Now the Governor’s office says it’s looking for more testing resources in response.

The misplaced tests belonged to patients who took them throughout the new system of drive-thru sites in metro Atlanta. Those sites are operated by the Augusta University Health System and the Georgia National Guard. They opened on April 23rd, and have since processed about 13,000 tests statewide.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr learned last week, that the Augusta University Health System initially thought it was dealing with a few hundred delayed tests. By Monday, more than 4,000 tests had been transferred out of an overwhelmed Atlanta lab system for processing.

Then, in a joint investigation with our partners at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the AJC.com, Carr learned there are also lost tests that have led health officials to re-test patients this week .

A spokeswoman with the August University Health system said the misplaced tests account for 30 patients, but they did not know how the tests were lost.

One patient told Carr she was informed by AU that it happened during the physical transfer of the delayed tests, from Atlanta to Augusta over the weekend.

The 63-year-old metro Atlanta woman, who asked not to be identified, said she was first tested in Decatur on April 24.

RELATED STORIES:

“They said, 'Well, they were transferring them from here in Atlanta to a testing site there at the university,' and somewhere in between there, it was lost,” the woman said. “I said, 'Well, what can I do?' She said, 'All you can do is go and get retested.' “

The woman said her frustration mounted when she was told to re-test.

“I said, 'Well, it's been 11 days.' And I was furious that they had lost my test because it is not an easy test to take.”

Another woman told Channel 2 and the AJC that she was tested at the Greenbriar Mall site on April 25, and called into the lab last week. She was told her results were unreadable, and asked to give contact information over the phone.

“What would be happening was that I needed to provide all of my contact information again and that a supervisor was assigned to go through the tests to see if they could match contact information provided over the phone with contact information associated with samples,” she said.

The patient’s portal updated Monday to say “invalid results.” She had to return to the Greenbriar Mall site for retesting this week but not before she had to go to the emergency room.

“I took it (the test) because I had symptoms. I continue to have symptoms,” the patient said.

She told Carr that she was treated for inflammation around her lungs and decreased lung capacity. She’s on an inhaler while in quarantine, waiting for the new results this week.

Problems started with computer infrastructure failure

Early in the operation, Augusta University began transferring specimen from Atlanta to Augusta. It tied back to overwhelmed computer system that failed to process the actual test results, and allow patients and the lab access to them.

Initially, the health system thought 400 patients were impacted, but by Monday, they needed to transfer thousands of specimen from the two weeks of testing.

Last week, the system’s Chief Medical Officer said that physical movement was something they did not want to do.

“Our goal is to prevent that from ever happening, and we regret that anybody had a delay in this case,” Dr. Phillip Coule said Friday as tests were being transferred between labs. “We do distribute tests across labs, but we try to be geographically smart, right? So, the less waste we have in driving samples from Atlanta to Augusta, the attempt is to make it more streamlined and not have to do that.”

Over the weekend, more than 4,000 tests were transferred to Augusta. Two thousand patients received results over the weekend, while another 2,200 tests remained in process Monday. They were taken between April 29th and May 1st.

Christen Engel, an Augusta University spokeswoman, noted the Atlanta lab computer system had been updated. The lab had re-opened by Monday, but they anticipated slower result returns as testing ramped up in the Metro area. Additionally, a second Atlanta lab interface was being installed to help move results along.

The system now expects patients to receive results within four days.

Several patients we spoke with says the delays and misplaced tests have soured their trust in the process

“How viable are those results, once I — if I — ever get those results?” asked Angela Phoenix-Lee, a Smyrna resident who says she’s been quarantined with her husband, an essential worker, since taking the test on April 24th.

“There’s too many moving parts and too many unanswered questions to me, Phoenix-Lee said.

“I really do not know,” said the 63-year-old patient re-tested this week “ All I know is the inefficiency and accuracy of them losing my test. I’m not real sure about how I feel about the testing and if you test, if it’s accurate.”

“There’s a reason we don’t have testing up to par, up to speed here in the city and that worries me because we don’t know how many people have it in Georgia,” she added.

The National Guard did not respond to requests for comment on the operation, but Gov. Brian Kemp’s office says it is now working to secure more testing resources.

Kemp has encouraged Georgians to take advantage of the drive-thru sites, saying early on in the operation that they weren’t being utilized by patients as much as they could.

Kemp’s office sent the following statement Wednesday evening, saying:

“We are all working tirelessly to increase access to testing and ensure the health and well-being of Georgians. Given the fast pace at which we ramped up testing capabilities, we expected to encounter some challenges. Those challenges have been instructive, and we have taken immediate action to improve operations by working to leverage additional resources. We ask for patience and encourage people to continue to follow the guidance of public health officials, protect vulnerable Georgians, and do what they can to stay safe and healthy.”