Two weeks ago, Brett Barry walked into a CVS near his home in Phoenix to get a coronavirus test. Barry, a 55-year-old professional “mentalist”, had a tooth implant scheduled for the next week, and his dentist’s office required a negative COVID-19 test result before the surgery. It took three days just to schedule a testing appointment, and the pharmacy said it could be up to a week before his results came back. But a week went by, and Barry’s dentist appointment came and went, and the results did not show up.
As of yesterday, 14 days after Barry was tested for the coronavirus, he still had not received his results.
In Arizona—which began reopening in early May, only to lock down again after being hit with a tidal wave of cases—the testing infrastructure is underwater. Residents like Barry are waiting up to two weeks for results, while others are waiting up to 13 hours just to get tested. The top testing lab in the state said it is receiving double the amount of orders it can handle. And a crucial testing instrument isn’t arriving until August.
“What really pisses me off is I sheltered [in place] for three months,” Barry said, adding that he has diligently been wearing a mask in public since April. “And now it looks like we’re going to have to start over again.”
In recent weeks, Arizona has climbed to No. 8 on the list of states with the most confirmed coronavirus cases, passing 100,000 on Monday. On Tuesday, the state hit a record high number of deaths in a single day. Ninety percent of ICU beds are full, and some hospitals are reportedly shipping patients out of state.
Kate Gallego, the mayor of Phoenix, has even called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in, saying her city is in a “crisis related to testing.”
“I’ve been spending time begging everyone from Walgreens to open up testing, out-of-state testing companies to come in, because it’s awful to see people waiting in a car while you’re feeling sick,” she told ABC's Martha Raddatz this weekend. “And this is as many months in.”
Arizona Chief Operating Officer Daniel Ruiz told The Daily Beast that test results could take anywhere from one or two days to a high of five or seven, calling the upper end of the spectrum “really frustrating, from a public health standpoint.” But the website for Sonora Quest Laboratories, which handles 80 percent of testing in the state, says most patients should expect to wait at least six or seven days for results. A voice message for the follow-up line at CVS Minute Clinics, where Barry was tested, gives a similar wait time.
Asked about wait times of two weeks that Barry experienced, Ruiz said he had seen similar reports but did not think this is the average. “Anything over five days to us is frustrating and it's something we want to turn the tide on,” he said.
But Lauren Berold, the office manager for Barry’s dentist, said the bulk of their patients are waiting anywhere from a week to 10 days for test results. She said she had already rescheduled three appointments because patients could not get their results in time for the procedure. On the Tuesday after the Fourth of July, when the office would usually have two surgeries lined up, the schedule was empty for fear that patients would not get their results over the holiday weekend.
“It’s really hard scheduling because you’re kind of playing this guessing game,” Berold said. “It feels like it’s kind of this rollercoaster.”
The testing delay also poses broader public health problems. According to Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, positive test results are the easiest way to convince someone to self-isolate and stop the spread of the virus. And the sooner an infected patient receives those results, he said, the sooner they will take preventative measures.
"People who don't know their infection status could go out and continue to spread, particularly to older people,” he told The Daily Beast. “They may not access medical care as early, because people may not be as aware or concerned that they actually have a true infection.”
Klauser said his lab at UCLA returns test results in 24 hours. Two of the state’s largest private labs, Quest and LabCorp, are reportedly processing results within three to five days.
Arizona didn’t always have such a severe backlog. In May, the governor’s office and state health department had to extend a three-weekend “testing blitz” for two more weekends after they failed to attract even 10,000 people for testing every Saturday. And Ducey said as recently as June 11 that the state was in good enough shape to continue reopening.
In recent weeks, as the number of cases in the state skyrocketed, so did the demand for tests. More than 900 people showed up to a single testing event on June 18, according to local news reports, leaving residents waiting up to 13 hours in 100-degree heat. Seven hours after the event was scheduled to end, organizers started turning people away—some of whom had lined up before the event started.
“At some point, we had to cut it off because we didn’t have enough tests, and our staff and volunteers were being pushed to the limit because of the heat,” Tomás León, the senior vice president of marketing and Strategy at Equality Health, told The Arizona Republic.
The day before, Sonora Quest had received 12,000 test orders—a record number for the laboratory, and double its capacity, according to Reuters. Two weeks later, the testing backlog caused the lab to miss a deadline to report new coronavirus cases to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Sonya Engle, the lab’s chief operating officer, told a local radio station that Sonora Quest was looking to add a third testing platform that would enable it to process 40,000 coronavirus tests per day—but according to Reuters, the platform isn’t slated to arrive until August.
Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, admitted that the number of testing requests that weekend had taken the agency by surprise. When they reached out to the laboratories to provide support, she said, they learned that the labs were running low on reagents and other materials necessary to run the tests.
“I think that even Sonora Quest was surprised by the recent demand in testing,” Christ said, adding that the department had been “working with our federal partners to address each of those issues of the past couple of weeks.” (Sonora Quest did not respond to several emails seeking comment.)
Asked why the governor’s office did not anticipate a surge in demand, based on the catastrophic outbreaks in states like New York, Ruiz said these surges were “dynamic” and that strategies would “vary based on the state and what they're seeing in terms of their case increases.” He added that the governor’s office planned to announce a project with a private lab this week that would “exponentially increase” the state’s testing capacity.
Meanwhile, Barry is still checking his CVS account daily, waiting for his test results.
“Why didn't they put all the infrastructure in place while we were all doing what we were supposed to do?” he asked. “It really is a shitshow.”