Minnesotans seeking coronavirus tests in more remote parts of the state have reported wait times of up to a week, requiring them to isolate days longer than those who have speedier options in larger cities.
And slower turnaround times for the tests could continue as more people seek out a test during the holidays or require one as COVID-19 continues to spread through the state, health officials recently said.
“The issue of slow turnaround time is a concern, it remains a concern and partly that’s driven by what we’re seeing nationwide, 168,000 cases in the United States just yesterday,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said this past week, “so laboratories like Mayo, the other reference laboratories are very, very busy and having trouble keeping the turnaround time as low as they want.”
While the state has ramped up its COVID-19 testing capacity from hundreds of tests a day to more than 50,000 daily, Minnesotans in more rural areas told Forum News Service that as recently as last week, they waited five days for test results. Others said that they had waited a week to learn whether they had COVID-19 this month.
By comparison, state saliva testing stations and health systems reported turning around results in 24 to 48 hours.
Lonnie St. Arnold, of Cloquet, Minn., said he sought out a test after he developed a sore throat. St. Arnold considered the Duluth saliva testing center but it was closed Monday and Tuesday, so he made an appointment in Cloquet. The Duluth saliva center and other testing facilities around the state have since increased their hours and moved to seven-day-a-week testing schedules.
While the testing experience was swift and relatively painless, St. Arnold said he waited about four days for an answer. His wife also got a COVID-19 test and waited five days for a result.
“That seems to be a problem, waiting it out like that,” he said, noting that as a retiree, it was easier to stay at home.
Prompt test results potentially allow a person to return to work sooner or emerge from isolation if they test negative for the virus. And they can offer Minnesotans peace of mind.
Additional demand for testing, limited capacity to run tests in one day and transportation to out-of-state processing facilities have slowed results in some parts of the state. And while the Department of Health has partnered with the Mayo Clinic, University of Minnesota and other private groups to ramp up testing availability, turnaround time has varied.
The Mayo Clinic, which has increased its daily test processing capacity tenfold since the pandemic struck Minnesota, reports that it runs 20,000 tests a day short of leveling the 50,000 sample pile that comes in daily.
While it can be inconvenient, state health officials have urged people to isolate while waiting for test results to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
“Waiting is not the optimal thing and it’s so important that after people get a test — as frustrating as it is — to wait for the results and you have to act as if you’re probably positive while you’re waiting for those test results to come back,” Malcolm said. “We’ll do everything we can, our health care partners are doing everything they can to add capacity and speed up processing, but that is just a fact with the volumes that we’re seeing around the country, that those national labs, in particular, are pretty backed up.”
Last month, the state partnered with Vault Health to open a saliva testing lab in Oakdale, which has processed COVID-19 tests from around the state and started running mail-in saliva test samples. The health department earlier this month announced all Minnesotans could access the at-home saliva tests for free and high demand slowed their rollout. The state temporarily capped the number sent out each day as a result, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
W. Scott Olsen, a professor at Concordia College, said he made an appointment for a saliva test in Moorhead after interacting with students and others on campus. He thought he might be asymptomatic, so he went to the testing center, “spit in the little cup and dropped it in a box and I left.”
Within 24 hours, Olsen said he learned he’d tested negative for the virus.
“The information itself is valuable since I’m a teacher and I’m in front of people all the time,” he said, “the last thing I want to do is be contagious.”
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