(Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels)

Gloria Vera-Bedolla's 24-year-old son started feeling sick on a Friday. He had a high fever, chest congestion, body aches and a bad cough. Four of his co-workers at a beer distributing company had tested positive for COVID-19.


On Saturday, Vera-Bedolla's daughter-in-law called her worried, and the two of them got to work looking for a test.

Five sites—including his doctor at Victory Medical and three CommUnity Care drive-thru locations—said they were either out of appointments or unable to provide results for up to 11 days.

"A person could've died by then," Vera-Bedolla told Austonia.

Finally, they found an open slot for a rapid test appointment at Austin Regional Clinic in Pflugerville—at 2 a.m. on a Monday. It cost $175, but the results were available in around 30 minutes.

Experiences like his are not uncommon in Austin as demand for COVID-19 testing soars and both local and national labs are overwhelmed. Vera-Bedolla's son (who was not available for an interview) is finally starting to feel better. But the run on tests continues.

​Delays everywhere

As the COVID-19 surge worsens in Texas and dozens of other states, increased demand for testing has overwhelmed clinical labs, driving up turnaround times and thwarting efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

Austin Public Health announced a few weeks ago that it would restrict free testing to residents with symptoms or known exposure and encouraged residents with insurance to get tested at their doctor's office.

But private practices are facing the same constraints.

"To me, it's a scandal," Dr. James Marroquin told Austonia.

Dr. Marroquin works at Capital Medical Clinic, an internal medicine practice on West 38th Street. Up until about mid-June, the clinic was testing around 100 patients for COVID-19 each week, Clinic Administrator Rae Smith said.

But around the time APH recommended patients seek out tests at private providers, the clinic's lab, Clinical Pathology Laboratories, said it would no longer accept COVID-19 tests because of a backlog. So the clinic stopped offering tests except to very high-risk patients. The clinic has since started accepting tests again, but doctors remain concerned about another backlog.

Other labs are facing similar issues, including two of the country's largest: Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp.

"I would say it's a systems issue," Texas Academy of Family Physicians CEO Tom Banning told Austonia. "We didn't design our lab system to do mass COVID testing."

Waiting game

Overwhelmed labs, which used to provide test results in three to five days, are now reporting wait times of a week or longer. This causes two main problems.

First, it stymies containment.

The main goal of testing is to help "box in" the spread of COVID-19 by alerting people who are infected of their status and prompting them to self-isolate and inform their contacts, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott explained last week.

"If we're getting results after the person is no longer infectious, that strategy no longer works," he said.

A patient may recover in the seven to 10 days it takes to receive a test result—and expose others in that period.

"At that stage, the test results are relatively useless for us," Dr. Escott said.

Second, it complicates health authorities' understanding of the virus.

Travis County reported 3,109 cases last week, 187 fewer than the week prior. But authorities say that could be because many tests are in limbo—conducted but not processed.

"We are missing thousands of results, so it's really difficult for us to tell if things are getting better or not," Dr. Escott said.

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Austin FC is one seat closer to opening the doors to its new stadium for the 2021 Major League Soccer season.

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I'm very proud and pleased to tell you that the Austonia team has been selected as a finalist for a nationwide award—Best Emerging (New) Publisher, from the Local Independent Online News Publishers association, the industry group for local digital news sites like ours.

View the 2020 LION awards finalists here.

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