Private labs now testing for coronavirus -- but you can’t just walk in

Quest Diagnostics & LabCorp have started to offer tests for COVID-19

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the cases continue to climb, concerns about the new coronavirus are growing, and News4Jax is hearing from more people who want to get tested.

U.S. health officials say more and more public and private laboratories, including Quest Diagnostic and LabCorp, are now able to test for the virus. But you can’t just walk into a lab and expect to be tested.

Where are the tests?

Federal officials have touted the shipment of more than 1 million tests to U.S. health labs. But the actual number of people who can be tested is much lower. One reason is that it takes multiple samples and tests to confirm a single result.

But testing capacity is also being squeezed by a number of other factors, including the limited number of labs and the time it takes to set up and run the tests.

Flaws in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s original test also delayed the rollout to other labs. In early February, the CDC started sending out tests to state and local public health labs. But before they were put into use, some tests proved to be faulty and unreliable.

The labs have now gotten the tests going, with facilities in all 50 states capable of running about a total of 75,000 tests over the next days or weeks, the CDC's Dr. Nancy Messonnier said Monday.

The Food and Drug Administration granted private and academic labs permission to develop and use their own tests late last month. But Harvard University's Dr. Michael Mina says it can take labs days or weeks to fine-tune their testing methods, much like a restaurant trying out a new recipe.

National testing chains, including Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, have started to offer tests. That will result in a “dramatic increase in the availability of testing,” Vice President Mike Pence said.

News4Jax on Tuesday checked with both private companies and learned that people can’t just walk in and expect to be tested. The order has to come from a doctor.

“At this time, the test can be ordered anywhere in the U.S. by physicians or other healthcare providers,” LabCorp said in a statement to News4Jax and in a message posted on its website.

Another thing that News4Jax learned is that samples are not be collecting at those labs. The sample has to come from a doctor or health care provider. Then the private companies perform the test -- not a state lab.

“Patients for whom testing has been ordered should not be sent to a LabCorp location to have a specimen collected. The specimen should be collected by the ordering clinician and then be sent to LabCorp using standard procedures. The turnaround time to provide test results is typically three to four days from the pickup of the specimen to release of the test result,” LabCorp said in the statement.

LabCorp (WJXT)

The procedure is similar for Quest.

“Quest Diagnostics patient service centers and phlebotomy sites do not collect respiratory specimens on suspected COVID-19 cases. Patients suspected of, or confirmed to have, COVID-19 should consult with a physician regarding the best way to provide a specimen for testing by Quest,” reads a message posted on the Quest website.

So far, the CDC has done tests for 1,700 people, but that doesn’t include tests done by other government or private labs.

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How does the test work?

The test uses samples taken from the patient with swabs. The CDC recommends at least two swabs, one from the throat and the other from the nose. That’s where the virus tends to enter and cause an infection.

The samples are then sent off to a limited number of government, academic and private labs that can run the test.

The test uses a laboratory technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to find tiny traces of the virus' genetic material and, in just a few hours, make billions and billions of copies of it – enough that a computer can detect it.

The lab process can take roughly 4 to 6 hours. Altogether, it can take several days to ship a sample and receive the results back.

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