The New Coronavirus Testing Crisis at Private Labs
Backlogs at private laboratories have ballooned
On the surface, the American COVID-19 testing regime has finally hit its stride. Over the past five days, the states have reported a daily average of 104,000 people tested, according to data assembled by the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer collaboration incubated at The Atlantic. Today, the U.S. reported that 1 million people have been tested for the coronavirus—a milestone that the White House once promised it would hit the first week of March.
But things are not going as smoothly as the top-line numbers might suggest. Our reporting has unearthed a new coronavirus-testing crisis. Its main cause is not the federal government, nor state public-health labs, but the private companies that now dominate the country’s testing capacity. Testing backlogs have ballooned, slowing efficient patient care and delivering a heavily lagged view of the outbreak to decision makers.
Though the problem is national in scope, California is its known epicenter. Over the past week, the most populous state in the union—where the country’s first case of community transmission was identified, in late February—has managed to complete an average of only 2,136 tests each day, far fewer than other similarly populous states, according to our tracking data. Yet California also reports that more than 57,400 people have pending test results. Tens of thousands of Californians have been swabbed for the virus, but their samples have not yet been examined in a lab.
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