Delaware coronavirus testing backlog leaves some frustrated, anxious

A Bayhealth staff member waits for a car to be checked in during a drive-up coronavirus testing at Dover International Speedway last week. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Health care providers and medical experts are doing their best, but a backlog of coronavirus testing kits has left many people waiting at least a week to hear back about their results.

As of 11 a.m. Monday, the Division of Public Health said it had received 3,048 tests, the vast majority of which were negative. However, that count, which represents about .3 percent of Delaware residents, is not comprehensive. Because health care providers from around the state are sending samples out to different labs every day, the number is constantly changing and is extremely difficult to track, health officials say.

Although tests are collected by health care providers, they’re analyzed for COVID-19 either out of state by commercial labs or DPH at its Smyrna laboratory.

DPH Director Karyl Rattay said last week the state’s lab can produce results in one or two days, while commercial labs take a few more days. However, as the virus continues to spread, not just in Delaware but regionally, delays are increasing.

That’s something Tracy VanBrocklin has experienced personally. Her 25-year-old daughter Jasmine was tested at Bayhealth’s Sussex campus on March 22 and, as of Monday morning, was still awaiting her results. Ms. VanBrocklin’s daughter, who is in the Air Force, tested negative for the flu and strep throat but has been having trouble breathing for more than a week, Ms. VanBrocklin said.

Her daughter was initially told results would come in in three or four days, Ms. VanBrocklin said, but that wait has grown.

According to Ms. VanBrocklin, attempts to contact Bayhealth have been fruitless, with calls either going to an answering machine or a person who can’t offer much more beyond instructing them to wait a few more days for test results.

The hospital did give her daughter some basic information after she took the test and was discharged, she said, but that did not include many details beyond the importance of quarantining yourself.

“My daughter’s stressed out because she can’t even talk to a person,” Ms. VanBrocklin said.

John Fink, a doctor who serves as the medical director for Bayhealth Medical Group, said the hospital system has tested about 1,300 people so far. Bayhealth has a staff of 25 people answering its special coronavirus hotline, he said, and employees regularly check in on people awaiting their test results.

While he acknowledged it’s not impossible for a case to fall through the cracks and he didn’t comment on Ms. VanBrocklin’s complaint specifically, Dr. Fink said Bayhealth has received good feedback from patients. He is confident the hospital is doing as much as it can to keep them informed.

“I completely understand,” he said of the stress many awaiting results feel. “It’s very frustrating for patients. They’re anxious, they want to know.”

For its part, Bayhealth sends inpatient tests to DPH and most others to Quest or LabCorp facilities in other states, according to Dr. Fink. The hospital system is looking at ways to speed up the process, such as working with other labs or doing tests inhouse, and is concerned about the potential for the backlog to grow, Dr. Fink said.

In part due to a shortage of tests, not everyone can get tested for coronavirus. Right now, tests are reserved for those who have symptoms and a recommendation from a doctor.

The most common symptoms include shortness of breath, fever or coughing, but some patients have been displaying a sore throat, body aches, nausea or diarrhea, according to health officials. The elderly and people with underlying conditions are most at risk.

Anyone who suspects he or she is sick should stay home and contact a primary care provider instead of first heading to the emergency room or an urgent care center. A person experiencing a medical emergency, such as significant trouble breathing, should call 911.

Statewide testing at standing health facility sites began last week for patients with a doctor’s note. Those without a primary care provider can contact DPH at 1-888-408-1899, but individuals should not just walk in to one of the testing sites.

People awaiting test results should expect to hear back from their medical provider, not the state.

So far, the First State has reported 264 cases with seven deaths. Schools and non-essential businesses have been closed, and Delawareans have been instructed to stay home.

Understandably, many residents have expressed frustration at feeling like they’re left in the dark, but unfortunately for Ms. VanBrocklin and those like her, it doesn’t seem as if there’s much that can be done.

The backlog has increased tremendously over the past two weeks or so, as more providers send tests to commercial labs like Quest and LabCorp.

A spokesman for LabCorp said the company could not provide state-specific information, and Quest did not respond to an email.

Although some people have questioned why more details about the cases, such as specific locations, aren’t being released to help keep the public informed, health officials say they are publicizing as much as the law allows. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prevents the agency from sharing almost any identifying details about individual cases, Dr. Rattay said.

DPH’s daily coronavirus update initially included the number of people, but that was removed after just a few days.

“With the additional number of test samples that health care systems and providers across the state are submitting to commercial labs, the numbers of patients being tested have increased significantly,” the agency said when it announced the new policy March 16.

“To ensure that DPH is reporting the most accurate numbers, going forward the agency will only be releasing the number of positive cases in Delaware, and not the numbers of patients under investigation (PUIs) or the number of persons being monitored.”

The state updated its online counter at Thursday to display new graphics and more information, including the number of cases by age and a rolling count of the increase.

Still, some other agencies and businesses have chosen to put out a little more information. Redner’s Market, for instance, said over the weekend an employee at its west Dover store tested positive for coronavirus. The store was closed Saturday and underwent a deep cleaning, reopening Sunday.

Meanwhile, Cape Henlopen School District informed its community a bus driver had been diagnosed with the virus earlier in March, and the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families said Monday an employee at Ferris School tested positive.

“Department leadership made the decision to share information on COVID-19 cases in an effort to inform the public, and in consultation with the Division of Public Health and our team across state government,” spokeswoman Jen Rini wrote in an email.

As rumors of COVID-19 cases come trickling in, sometimes followed by official confirmation, Delawareans grow anxious. Perhaps the best advice is something Gov. John Carney has said many times in recent weeks: Be calm and be patient — we’ll get through this, difficult as it may be.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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