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Labs pushed to the limit with high demand from COVID-19 tests: Will they be ready for fall?

With both the flu and COVID-19 viruses potentially in full swing this fall, testing experts say labs will be overwhelmed and stressed.

TAMPA, Fla. — Coronavirus testing is helping us keep track of how the virus is spreading in Florida, but labs have had issues processing tests since the pandemic started.

“We want to have a snapshot as close to what's actually going on right now. Unfortunately, there are still to this day, some sites that are taking upwards of two weeks to return data,” Dr. Jill Roberts with USF Public Health. 

The testing expert says labs are overrun. Just last week the state cut ties with Quest Diagnostics after they reported a backlog of nearly 75,000 results, some of which date back to April. 

From April to May, there was a lack of testing and results were coming back in 10-14 days or more. The state picked up testing in June and July, but labs couldn't keep up due to a lack of supplies. Come August to September it's finally leveled off, but with flu season around the corner, Roberts says delays could get worse and labs will be stressed.

“The laboratory is going to use the same equipment, same people, and the same supplies to test COVID-19 samples as they are influenza samples. So you can bring us all the way back to that point where we had shortages in supplies. If we do not have the reagents, we don't have the slugs, we don't have that transport media, that stuff you use to get the swab from ‘point A’ to the laboratory, we're gonna run into trouble,” Roberts said.

Peak flu season will bring almost triple the number of tests into labs, with a possible, so-called "twindemic" happening toward the end of the year.

“It's simply more and more stress on top of a system that has been running at capacity since March. They're really going to get burned out if we send more in terms of Flu. It concerns me very, very much, but everybody can play a part to actually prevent this by simply getting the flu vaccine,” Roberts said. 

The fewer people getting sick this fall, the easier it will be for labs to process tests for both the flu and COVID-19. Testing labs are already bracing themselves for an influx of testing. 

Roberts says many are asking for emergency funding to hire temporary staff this fall. They're also adding protocols for processing flu and coronavirus tests.

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