Now, nearly 19 months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota, the majority of state residents are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
Yet with the increase in cases – mostly among the unvaccinated – and the more infectious delta variant causing groundbreaking cases even among those who have been vaccinated, the demand for COVID-19 testing has increased rapidly in recent months. Minnesotans get tested as part of routine screening, when they show symptoms of illness, to keep friends and family safe at gatherings, or because they need a negative test to board a plane or go to school or work.
Amid the high demand, the Minnesotans are having a harder time getting rapid tests and sometimes see longer waits for test results than over the summer.
The number of COVID-19 tests performed in Minnesota has increased rapidly in recent weeks: the most recent data shows a weekly average of 486 tests per 10,000 residents, compared to just over 100 tests per 10,000 residents in early July. In November 2020, just before Thanksgiving, Minnesota reported nearly 790 tests per 10,000 residents.
As demand for testing has increased, some Minnesotans have noticed that test appointments fill up faster at doctors’ offices and pharmacies, and many say they wait longer for test results.
Stephanie Zawistowski’s family visited Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport regularly since February so that their two primary-age children, who have attended school and summer programs, can be tested as a precaution. The MSP Airport Testing Site is one of 13 free community testing sites operated by Vault Health under contract to the state.
At first, it took Zawistowski’s kindergarten child an hour to fill the pin sample tube.
“Now she comes in and out in 10 minutes,” she said.
Emails from Vault state that test results should be available within 24-48 hours of sample arrival at the lab, but often they are available more quickly. From February until the end of summer, Zawistowski’s family usually got tested on Saturday morning, received an email saying their samples had arrived that evening, and got the results by the time they woke up on Sunday. But lately it seems less predictable and generally takes longer than before, although still within 24 to 48 hours from when tests arrive at the lab and when results are available.
In recent weeks, when family members were tested on Saturday, results were often not available until Monday evening, Zawistowski said. When a child who was home in quarantine developed potential symptoms of COVID-19, the family recently kept the other child home from school on a Monday while awaiting test results.
Rena Carlson Rasmussen also noted an increase in test execution time. It is tested weekly as a precaution. Although vaccinated, Rasmussen said that as the manager of a coworking space, the weekly tests provide peace of mind: “It’s part of my usual routine with a lot of people,” she said. .
In the spring, when Rasmussen was tested at the state testing site at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul, also run by Vault Health, she usually got the results the same night. Now it often takes more than a day, she says, from when she spits into the tube until she receives an email with her results.
Longer turnaround time
Vault has seen some increase in median test processing time in recent weeks, spokesperson Kate Brickman said.
The company measures turnaround time as the time between when the sample arrives at the lab and when the results are available. This is because the company processes both mailed tests and tests performed at community testing sites across the state and some in schools.
The median time between the arrival of tests and the most recent week’s results was nine hours, Brickman said on Monday. That’s down from 12 p.m. the week before and up five to six hours in June and July when test volume was lower. Still, 95% of test results take less than 24 hours to come back after they get to the lab, Brickman said.
“It certainly increased a bit in terms of turnaround time, as demand doubled and tripled,” Brickman said. “But test results still typically take less than 12 hours once they get to the lab.”
Brickman said the turnaround time is similar to high-volume spring testing times.
At Sanford Health’s Bemidji site, test results often take a little longer to come back than before, as the volume of testing increases. Sanford Bemidji has gone from around 900 tests in a week to 2,100 recently, and test appointments are filling up quickly, said Amy Magnuson, director of primary care at the Bemidji site.
The site has switched to using PCR testing exclusively for symptomatic patients, which means samples have to be sent to a lab, increasing turnaround time, which is now typically between 24 and 48 hours.
“I think we’re still doing pretty well, but it’s a little longer than what people have been able to go through in the past two months,” said Magnuson.
It’s not just Minnesota where COVID-19 test turnaround time is increasing. As demand for COVID-19 tests has increased, other states are seeing similar increases in the time it takes to get results, according to reports in Montana, Maryland and Maine.
Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson Scott Smith said in an email that laboratories in Minnesota – both private and state-contracted – have the capacity to meet a demand for testing. higher than what the state is currently seeing.
Currently, labs process between 17,000 and 40,000 tests per day, far less than the roughly 90,000 processed on peak processing day. Smith said he had not heard of any turnaround time issues.
Rapid tests are rare
As Minnesotans seek to get tested more often, many are turning to rapid antigen testing. These tests, available at drugstores for about $ 12 to $ 40 each, come back in about 15 minutes. They are generally less accurate than benchmark PCR tests performed at Vault and other labs, but offer the advantage of a quick result.
Rapid tests are widely available – and sometimes free – in some other countries, but here supply is less than demand, with pharmacies often unable to keep them in stock. At the time of publication, most local CVS stores and some Walgreens were listing them as out of stock.
These last weeks, Minnesotans shared advice on social media when and where scarce tests become available, and parents in particular are reporting their frustration at finding tests early in the back-to-school sniffle season.
“With elementary school children, I had to drive all over town last week to find a quick test for toddlers” a Twin Cities parent tweeted.
Unvaccinated people exposed to COVID-19 are supposed to be quarantined for 14 days regardless of the test result, but getting a result sooner can provide some measure of comfort. For drug tests to be effective in schools, tests must be available within 24 hours, according to the CDC.
Zawistowski said she was happy to have the testing sites available, but said a longer wait time makes it harder for parents to make decisions that ultimately affect their children, and potentially, their communities. .
“You can’t test your exit from a pandemic, but it certainly gives you a lot more information to make better choices, especially when you’re a parent trying to make choices for your kids who aren’t yet eligible. to be vaccinated, “Zawistowski said. “We’re in our third year of school in which we’re dealing with the pandemic, and it seems like it’s gotten harder and not easier and it’s weird going back like that.”