Why it still takes several days — and sometimes longer — to get back COVID-19 test results in Johnson County

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has regularly scheduled drive-thru testing clinics for people who live or work in the county to get tested, whether or not they experience COVID-19 symptoms. Above, a drive-thru clinic in July.

COVID-19 testing has become a significant part of understanding and monitoring the spread of the novel coronavirus. Statistics from testing results are constantly changing; positive cases and trends determined Johnson County’s gating criteria for whether and how schools should open for in-person learning

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has regularly scheduled drive-thru testing clinics for people who live or work in the county to get tested, whether or not they experience COVID-19 symptoms. Here’s the link to schedule an appointment online.

KU Health officials last week shared updates on the state of the Kansas City area in terms of case counts, testing processes and other health information in a webinar.

Here are some of the questions we posed to the county health department and Viracor Eurofins, one of the county’s local lab partners, for testing COVID-19 specimen:

How long do test results take?

Recently, it takes three to five business days.

Flyers distributed to clinic participants indicate that county health department staff expect to receive results within five to seven business days. But those were early estimates, based on the massive influx of testing specimen.

“Early on, a five- to seven-day timeframe was more realistic, but since JCDHE increased capacity, the turn-around results are much quicker in the last month or so,” said Barbara Mitchell, public information officer for the county health department, in an email. “Our results have been coming in closer to the two- to four-day mark.”

Participants can sign up to receive an email with their negative results instead of waiting through postal mail. All participants with positive results will get a phone call, Mitchell said, adding that sometimes, email results get caught in spam folders. People with Gmail accounts should check their Promotions tab for their results. 

Anyone wishing to receive their results by both mail and email would have to request it, Mitchell added.

Why does testing take a few days and sometimes longer?

Scientists in the labs of Viracor Eurofins in Lee’s Summit has partnered with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment to test COVID-19 specimen. Photo courtesy Viracor Eurofins.

Viracor, which is based in Lee’s Summit, performs a wide-range of viral testing and testing for critically ill transplant patients.

Michelle Altrich, president of Viracor Eurofins, said lab staff typically turn results within eight to 12 hours of receipt. But due to the onslaught of testing specimen seen nationwide during the pandemic, those turnaround times have increased significantly.

“Many laboratories across the country are experiencing bottlenecks and therefore longer turnaround times for COVID-19 results,” Altrich said, citing the disarray of a decentralized testing system. “In addition to supply chain issues, there is also a visibility issue. Unlike the consumer market, there is no way to publicize which labs across the country have excess capacity. As a result, we are seeing situations where some laboratories continue to get overwhelmed with tests while others have the ability to take on more.”

Viracor is currently caught up on testing turnaround time of 24 hours for COVID-19 testing, Altrich said, noting that the labs were backed up a few times over the past two months.

“It’s hard to know, but it’s really cyclical,” Altrich said. “Testing across the U.S. really peaked a few weeks ago and it was going up. Now it’s really softened, not only here locally but also throughout the U.S.”

On top of that, labs large and small face similar barriers such as maintaining a supply system similar to what companies face trying to access personal protective equipment. Labs need PPE as well as plastic equipment for the testing process. Altrich said that due to this influx in supply and demand, Viracor works to keep at least two weeks’ worth of supplies, since some suppliers have to ration what they provide.

“We’re all in uncharted territory here,” Altrich said. “In the healthcare system, everybody does everything they can to meet the growing demand, and it’s hard to know what’s in store for us in the next two months, four months and six months. 

“For those of us in the healthcare field, we’ve been working great together and forming great partnerships. The community just needs to continue to come together as well and do everything we can on an individual basis to limit the spread of the virus so we can give time for the vaccine developers to get through their processes, with the goal of everybody getting back to some sort of a normal type of existence.”

Altrich said Viracor is using this time to prepare for another upswing in testing to avoid future backlogs.

Viracor, which is expanding operations into Lenexa (independent of the pandemic), also recently launched a pool testing process, a cost-reducing approach which tests groups of five people’s specimen at one time

Mitchell said the labs require time to process the influx of COVID-19 specimen, and then put it in the EpiTrax system.

EpiTrax is an open source surveillance and outbreak management application for public health uses, according to documents from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Local, state and federal agencies use it to investigate and mitigate diseases and environmental hazards using electronic laboratory reporting.

Anyone waiting longer than four or five days to hear back from the Johnson County health department can call 913-715-2819 for their results.

Where does the county send COVID-19 specimen from its clinics?

COVID-19 testing results have had a turnaround time of two to four days at local labs such as Viracor Eurofins. Photo courtesy Viracor Eurofins.

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has partnered with three labs: Viracor Eurofins Clinical Diagnostics, a lab company based in Lee’s Summit; University of Kansas Health System; and Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

What does Johnson County Department of Health and Environment recommend for quarantine and isolation timeframes, particularly for those who could be infectious?

  • For those who test positive for COVID-19 AND experience symptoms, the county recommends the patient isolate at home for 10 days after the onset of symptoms, until the patient is fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication, and until the patient have a significant improvement in symptoms.
  • For those who test positive for COVID-19 AND are without symptoms, the county recommends the patient isolate at home for 10 days.
  • For those who have been deemed a close contact for someone who has tested positive, the recommendation is to quarantine for 14 days after the last contact with the positive case. The county defines a close contact as someone who has been closer than 6 feet to a person with a positive case for more than 10 minutes.

Johnson County does not necessarily recommend getting tested multiple times, as each scenario is different, Mitchell said. And as to those strange cases where people test positive multiple times but are consistently without symptoms?

“Science tells us that once you have tested positive, it takes 10 days before you are no longer infectious,” Mitchell said. “That is why it is strongly recommended to isolate for 10 days after testing positive.”

How does testing through Johnson County’s clinics and lab partners work?

Johnson County health workers administer PCR nasal tests. Altrich at Viracor said PCR is “the gold standard” at Viracor as well as the lab at KU Med. PCR tests look for genetic pieces of the virus in each testing sample.

Testing specimens are collected and sealed in viral transport media, like what’s manufactured through Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., a global company building a new COVID-19 sample collection manufacturing facility in Lenexa.

Once in the lab, the testing specimen goes through a multi-step chemical reaction through multiple phases. That genetic material is extracted from the sample and goes through the polymerase chain reaction (hence the name PCR), which amplifies that genetic material so that scientists can detect presence of the COVID-19 virus.

While Viracor didn’t have an exact number of completed tests readily available, a spokeswoman said Viracor’s parent company, Eurofins, will have the capacity to run up to 100,000 PCR tests per day across its labs in the U.S. by this fall. 

Viracor Eurofins is also planning to expand its operations in Lenexa.