A microbiologist demonstrates the process for testing a sample for coronavirus

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Where should you go now if you’re looking for a quick coronavirus test result? Billy Penn surveyed all 56 test sites in Philadelphia.

At least 30 of them send their samples to be processed at national labs like LabCorp, Quest and Bioreference — companies that are experiencing delays up to 14 days because the virus has recently surged in other parts of the country.

In Philadelphia, local hospitals have the upper hand. Those who get tested at Penn, Jefferson, Temple and CHOP facilities are likely to see results within 72 hours, if not sooner. That’s because each of the expansive health networks can run the samples inside their own labs.

But hospital sites aren’t as accessible as many others. It can take days to get an appointment to be tested at Jefferson or Temple, while Penn Presbyterian only tests patients who have a surgery coming up. CHOP, of course, only takes kids.

Urgent care facilities like Vybe and pharmacies like CVS and RiteAid are more likely to take walk-up visits, but they all send their samples to be tested nationally. The same is true for community testing centers like those run by PHMC, Project HOME and Esperanza.

In her role as program manager at nonprofit community center Philadelphia FIGHT, Kimberly Chiaramonte coordinates more than 200 tests each week at walk-up sites in Kensington and South Philly. Samples are sent to Quest to be processed.

Then, people wait.

Sometimes her center gets results back in three days. Sometimes it takes 14 days. Earlier this month, she inexplicably received the results for July 15 days before the results sent from a batch on July 14.

“There’s no prediction,” Chiaramonte said. “We’re all just making up the rules as we go along.”

City ramps up testing with new in-house equipment

Philadelphia is spending $92 million to ramp up coronavirus testing, something experts say is critical to slowing the pandemic’s spread. A good portion of that funding is going to new equipment so the city can process tests locally, Health Department officials told Billy Penn.

Within a few weeks, the city’s public labs should be able to turn around up to 1,500 tests each day — a drastic increase from the 94 samples they currently run.

As things currently stand, there’s a huge disparity in turnaround times for results at the nearly five dozen test sites around Philadelphia. People who visit some providers get results in 24 to 48 hours, while patients at other sites end up waiting two weeks to find out if they’re positive or negative.

“We are continuing to have problems with long delays from two laboratories, [LabCorp] and Quest, that do about one-fouth of the tests in our city,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley on July 21.

LabCorp processes roughly 180,000 tests nationwide every day, with plans to expand capacity further, per spokesperson Nadia Damouni. For now, they’re prioritizing hospital and nursing home tests and processing the rest the order they receive them.

The lag in results can be frustrating for individuals, but it also has widespread consequences for public health.

Without up-to-date data, health officials struggle to develop an accurate picture of the virus’ spread in the local community — which informs their guidance on reopenings and closings of local businesses. The lag also makes it harder for workers in the city’s fledgling contact tracing program, since people may not remember their detailed movements over the days between getting a test and finding out whether it’s positive.

Additionally, staff at healthcare facilities are getting bogged down with constant questions from patients, who are expected to quarantine the entire time they wait for their results.

“When people call us back after 10 days and we still don’t have a result, it’s terrible,” said Chiaramonte of Philadelphia FIGHT. “It’s just frustrating to know if we’re even doing a service. How are we actually helping people?”

Philly and PA lag recommended test volume

Health Commissioner Farley has said his goal is to bring Philadelphia up to 5,000 daily tests. The city is currently averaging about 3k per day, or about 176 tests per 100k residents.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lags behind many other states in number of tests being done, with an average of 121 per 100k population. That’s 56% of the amount the Harvard Global Health Institute says is needed to mitigate the spread of the virus here.

Funded through a federal grant, the city’s new equipment is a collection of a few different tools, according to Health Department spokesperson James Garrow. They include:

  • 17 of the Cepheid Xpress, a machine that costs up to $25k and can rapidly process tests on site
  • Cepheid Gene Xpert add-on modules, which expand capacity for the above machine
  • Biofire Torch, another type of machine that runs a different kind of COVID test

The department hasn’t finalized where the machines will be placed, though it’s prioritizing “community clinics and other places where vulnerable folks need faster testing turnarounds, but are reliant on the national labs,” Garrow said

Also acquired was a Diasorin Liaison XL machine, which performs antibody testing.

Farley and other health experts are not yet recommending this type of testing, because not enough is known about antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, including the length of immunity they may confer. However, Garrow said, the machine was purchased because “we’re preparing for the day when that recommendation may change,”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...