Spikes in demand for coronavirus tests have strained America's testing capacity, forcing some patients to wait for more than two weeks for their results. Other patients have found ways to avoid those slow turnaround times, but they're paying thousands of dollars to gain access to speedy tests—in a practice that highlights both persisting inequalities in the U.S. health care system and difficulties with containing the novel coronavirus, David Goodman reports for the New York Times.
Some Americans pay thousands of dollars to avoid lags in coronavirus test results
According to Goodman, some Americans are paying thousands of dollars a year to sign up for concierge medical practices that can test patients for the coronavirus and provide their results quickly through contracts the practices hold with local labs.
For instance, Matthew Priddy, who operates a concierge medical practice in Indianapolis, told Goodman his practice started using a small, local lab after he found that Quest Diagnostics was taking seven days to return test results—a turnaround time that essentially made the results "worthless," Priddy said. His practice's contract with the local lab—which Priddy declined to name—now allows the practice's patients to access their test coronavirus results in two days, he said.
But being a patient at Priddy's practice comes with a monthly cost, Goodman reports, with patients at that practice paying between $150 and $600 per month in membership fees.
Similarly, Sollis—a boutique medical practice that charges its patients an annual membership fee of up to $5,000, according to Goodman—has contracted with Lenco Diagnostic Laboratories to process coronavirus tests and provide results for its members in 24 to 48 hours, Andrew Olanow, a co-founder of Sollis, said. Olanow told Goodman that demand for quick coronavirus test results has spiked among Sollis' members as many began traveling to countries requiring testing or locations with high rates of new coronavirus infections.
Further, Goodman reports that some physician's offices are offering to provide patients with coronavirus test results in less than 24 hours if they patients pay up to $200 out of pocket for the test.
Other companies—such as Infinity BiologiX—have created tests that do not require nasal swabs, unlike the commonly used polymerase chain reaction tests, to provide patients willing to pay for quick, less invasive tests with other options, Goodman reports. New Jersey-based Infinity BiologiX, which is affiliated with Rutgers University, created the first saliva-based coronavirus test authorized by FDA. The test generates results in up two days and has been used by financial institutions, universities, and professional athletes. In addition, Andrew Brooks, Infinity BiologiX's CEO, said his company so far has "tested 12 billionaires."
And some institutions have contracted with screening companies to have broader access to saliva-based coronavirus tests. For example, Horace Mann, a private school in the Bronx where tuition costs more than $50,000 a year, contracted with the screening company Sterling to provide on-demand saliva-based coronavirus tests for staff, students, and parents, Goodman reports.
Practice highlights inequities in US health care system—and challenges to curbing coronavirus' spread
Data from New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows many people in the city are waiting longer than 24 hours to receive their coronavirus test results. Overall, since July, the department saw the average turnaround time for coronavirus test results in the city increase from an average of two days to an average of three days, Goodman reports. But some patients have waited much long, according to the data. In fact, the data show that, during one week at the beginning of August, it took more than 13 days for 25% of the city's test results to come back, Goodman reports.
Officials in New York have said the lags in receiving coronavirus test results are hampering the state's efforts to contain the virus' spread through contact tracing, which requires quick results to isolate infected patients before they can pass the virus to others.
And according to Goodman, the delays also demonstrate how America's coronavirus epidemic has worsened "existing inequalities" in health care, particularly when it comes to having access to quality care. He reports, "In the early weeks of the [epidemic], those with money and connections found ways to get tests when few were available. Now, they get faster results."
What's being done to address the problem?
To help address the issue of slow turnaround times for coronavirus test results, New York City in August launched several so-called "express" testing sites that promise to provide patients with test results in 24 hours.
In addition, FDA has recently authorized the use of several low-cost, rapid coronavirus tests, Goodman reports—though he notes that those tests aren't yet "widely available" (Goodman, New York Times, 8/31).