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Testing Hurdles: County Working To Overcome Equipment Shortage, Hiring More Lab Staff

A a county employee waits for a person to swab themselves for a COVID-19 test...

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Above: A a county employee waits for a person to swab themselves for a COVID-19 test in a University of San Diego parking lot, July 15, 2020.

Recently San Diego county increased the number of COVID-19 tests performed every day, but now there is a new roadblock — staff and equipment shortages.

"We are ramping up our lab staff, and many of our hospital partners and even community clinics are doing three shifts seven days a week to try and meet the demand, but... there is a backlog on testing equipment," said Nick Macchione, who heads the county health and human services agency.

Listen to this story by Matt Hoffman.

Nationwide testing is also increasing, and commercial labs like Quest Diagnostics say they cannot keep up with demand. Unless people are priority patients, they could wait seven days or more for test results.

"We know that’s not acceptable, and they’re trying to do better," Macchione said.

New state guidance recommends prioritizing testing and test processing of hospital patients with symptoms of COVID-19, followed by other symptomatic and high-risk people who may have come in contact with a positive case. The county is prioritizing tests the same way and is working with a local company to get them done quickly.

RELATED: California Revamps Testing Guidelines As Virus Surges

Reported by Matt Hoffman , Video by Andi Dukleth

They've partnered with local biotech company Helix to deliver up to 2,000 tests per day, with results promised in 24 hours. That partnership takes the pressure off of the county lab, which officials say will now focus on processing tests related to outbreaks.

"We're prioritizing the groups because those are the groups that need to be tested," Macchione said. "And we're seeing more cases... So we're going to have more people... that need to be tested. So the county testing with Helix now getting up to 2,000 a day is actually going to let us do the same, if not more testing."

Currently, most tests for high priority patients are processed within 24 hours at the county lab, while other tests could take three or more days for results.

Even though the county reports the total number of tests daily, they are not doing the majority of the processing.

About 30-35% of tests are handled at the county lab. Macchione said the rest are processed by hospitals and commercial labs.

"Rest assured that we at the county lab and our hospital partners are working together with our new partners, and now Helix, to meet the needs of our county region," Macchione said.

The county says because of supply shortages they were at risk of closing some testing sites, but because of the partnership with Helix, they can now stay open.

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Photo of Matt Hoffman

Matt Hoffman
Health Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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