Overwhelmed Atlanta lab causes delay in hundreds of COVID-19 tests

ATLANTA — The number of delayed coronavirus test results from a handful of metro Atlanta testing sites has grown significantly, Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Nicole Carr has learned.

Roughly 2,200 tests have been transferred from an overwhelmed Atlanta lab to an Augusta site for processing, meaning people who took the test likely won’t know the results until well after the promised 72-hour turnaround.

The Georgia National Guard and Augusta University Health System began testing in the metro area April 24. The delayed tests were taken at those metro Atlanta drive-up sites between Wednesday and Sunday.

On Friday, Carr reported that 400 tests had been delayed, but state officials told her late Monday the number had grown to over 2,000. Roughly 2,000 more test results were delivered to patients over the weekend.

The delay stems from the computer system used to access the test results and notify patients. Augusta University resumed processing in the Atlanta site Monday but said results could come back slower than the 72-hour window because of increased testing capacity. A second Atlanta lab system is being updated to speed tests up in the metro area.

Augusta University Health System’s chief medical officer, Dr. Phillip Coule, said a small group of people will need to be retested. He does expect patients to receive results within four days.

Patients first reported delays last week

Channel 2 Action News began looking into the delays after hearing from Atlanta residents who had yet to receive their results.

"I’m concerned that the tests are being over-promised,” patient Wayne Donaho said.

“I’m really talking because I’m concerned for the people that are sick and went and did the test,” Toy Jackson said.

Jackson is a flight attendant, and even though she wasn’t sick, she went to the Greenbrier Mall testing site April 24 because she’s an essential worker.

Donaho works in technology and said he had symptoms. He was tested April 24 at a site in Kennesaw.

“And they guaranteed 72-hour results,” Jackson told Carr. "It's almost 1 o'clock on Friday a week later and I have no test results."

“No results on the portal. No results on the phone. No nothing,” Donaho said.

Donaho learned that he tested negative for the virus Friday afternoon, shortly after his interview with Carr.

Jackson described her conversation with the nurses' hotline.

“She said they were having trouble with results, and I assumed from that location,” Jackson said. “How backed up are they? You can't be backed up on the first two days."

Channel 2 Action News found out these two residents are not alone.

There were hundreds of delayed test results from the newly opened metro Atlanta sites because of an overwhelmed lab information system, a complex network designed to protect patient information and provide quick results.

“We wish we would have caught it earlier and these people weren’t delayed at all, but we are getting those results taken care of as quick as possible,” Coule said.

Coule said the problem with the computer system was detected "maybe a day or two into" the testing process. He explained that the university deployed approximately six team members to the Atlanta lab to work on the system and transfer a batch of tests to the Augusta lab.

He added that it is likely that only tests administered during the first few days at the new sites were delayed.

At the time of Carr’s 2:30 p.m. interview Friday with Coule, half of the delayed test results had been processed and were being delivered to patients.

“We would ask for a little bit of patience if you are one of those affected patients. We are working to get those results out ... quickly,” Coule said.

The drive-up sites had roughly 3,400 patients. If such high demand continues, Coule said another backlog is possible.

At last check, Jackson still did not have her results. She’s not showing symptoms but is concerned about her exposure as a flight attendant and asymptomatic spread, contact tracing.

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