Why you can't get that COVID-19 test result back in 24 hours

The turnaround time for COVID-19 test results in the region is being impacted by several factors, but the regional lead for Waterloo-Wellington hospitals' pandemic response said what has been achieved over the last several months is “remarkable.”

Many factors affect testing turnaround time, Lee Fairclough says

A drive-thru testing center at Grand River Hospital sees hundreds of people each day. While the region has faced challenges including limited lab capacity, Lee Fairclough said the turnaround time for test results has been for the most part consistent. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

The turnaround time for COVID-19 test results in the region is being impacted by several factors, but the regional lead for Waterloo Wellington hospitals' pandemic response said what has been achieved over the last several months is "remarkable."

Lee Fairclough, who is also president of St. Mary's General Hospital in Kitchener, said health officials have been learning as they go along and adapting as new challenges with COVID-19 pop up.

"When I look at what we've done on test turnaround times and the ability to process tests over the last several months, it's been remarkable actually," Fairclough told CBC News. 

"We've really been kind of building the plane while we've been flying it for this," she added.

"I think every time we do start to see turnaround times going up there's a trigger that sort of says, 'OK, let's try to have a look at what's causing some of those differences and try to better refine the ways to move tests and swabs between the different labs and the province.'"

60% of test results received within 2 days

While the region has faced challenges such as "shortages of reagents," used to test the samples, and limited lab capacity, Fairclough said the turnaround time has been quite good.

As an example, she said for the week of Aug. 15 to 22, approximately 60 per cent of test results were received within two days or less, including about 28 per cent that were the same or next day.

"What that means is that close to 40 per cent can take three days or more … If I think about the number of tests that we do in the Waterloo region, today, it's over 6,000 a week," Fairclough said.

High test volumes affect turnaround times

Looking at some of the reasons for differences in testing turnarounds at various testing sites, she said the main one is the actual capacity to process the test.

"Sometime we can process those tests locally here — for example, in our joint lab with St. Mary's and Grand River [Hospital], we have the ability to process tests here, particularly for patients that are symptomatic, patients coming through the ER, we can often get a test result in less than 24 hours," she explained.

"If the volumes are larger, which they usually are, we need to route those tests to be processed at other labs across the province, and so there's a system in place to do that," Fairclough said.

"If you go to the drive-thru [testing facility], many of those are processed at Grand River at the lab there, but again if we had a really high test volume that day we would then route those tests to be processed outside of the region as well."

More COVID-19 testing capacity coming

Fairclough said the region is planning for more capacity for the fall because they know people will be going back to school and returning from vacation and there will potentially be increased volumes of people coming forward for testing.

"For some of our testing centres we may be extending some of the hours, we will have some additional locations where people can be tested and we'll be communicating that more fully," she said. 

"The University of Waterloo is a good example — we're working with them to be able to have some testing capability onsite for example."

Get tested and follow up

The ultimate goal, Fairclough explained, would be that everyone would have a test result within 48 to 72 hours. 

But for now, that's still a work in progress. But she has this message for people: "If you are showing symptoms of any kind, ensure that you go and get that test."

"Also, I would say to them, if several days have gone by and you're still experiencing those symptoms and you don't have a test result yet — follow up. Follow up with the centre where you got that test done and we can make sure that we try to find it," she said.


  • An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Lee Fairclough as Dr. Lee Fairclough.
    Sep 04, 2020 8:50 AM ET


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