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Quest Diagnostics COVID-19 Testing Backlog Impacts How Florida Monitors New Coronavirus Trends


On Tuesday, Florida recorded a jump in new COVID-19 cases after the lab Quest Diagnostics uploaded tens of thousands of test results, some dating all the way back to April. Florida's state agencies then cut ties with Quest almost immediately.

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To understand the fallout from the situation, WLRN’s Verónica Zaragovia spoke to two infectious disease epidemiologists — Cindy Prins, at the University of Florida, and Mary Jo Trepka, at Florida International University — about Quest’s long delay in sending Florida the results of so many COVID-19 tests.

WLRN: How do you react to the news that Quest Diagnostics didn't tell the state about 75,000 test results dating back to April? What do you think this means for Florida?

CINDY PRINS: It is mandated to report those tests. And so, I was surprised that they didn't get reported. That's not necessarily data that's going to affect our decisions now. But it certainly is data that might have affected our decisions at the time. And so, you know, it would have been important to have that information.

We are in a period of time where a lot of labs are doing a lot more testing than they've ever done before. This is sort of new territory for a lot of them, and there may have been something where, they made some changes to how they were doing things potentially in order to cope with what they needed to do for the capacity of testing, and that somehow that just didn't work out for them. So it was a surprise, but on the other hand, it is really, I think, difficult right now with the amount of data that's being collected by some of these labs.

As you monitored for virus trends, how will this affect your work?

PRINS: You know, it's not something that's going to necessarily affect what we're looking at right now for trends, but it's really important to understand that you're looking at the epidemiology of an outbreak or a pandemic. You want to look at the course of that entire situation. You're not just looking at a single day and going forward, you're looking back as well.

And, there is going to be an opportunity after COVID-19 is gone, even, to think about this pandemic and to look at the trends that occurred, and so it is really important that when you're looking at that data, you're looking at accurate data so that we can do some future planning, knowing really what happened during the pandemic.

Hopefully, even if things get recorded right now, on sort of a large scale push of data on one day, my hope is that someone's going to be able to go back and still log that data on the accurate day that the person tested positive so that down the line we have that picture of what really happened.

MARY JO TREPKA: There was a missed opportunity. I mean, maybe we would have identified the pretty extensive community wide transmission sooner had we known about those cases. As as we go forward, it's very important that these types of errors aren't repeated because we are making as a community, we're making a lot of decisions right now.

A lot of things are happening right now. For example, allowing indoor dining has started again, and what's going to be the effect of that? What's going to be the effect of, you know, the universities really starting to reopen and then potentially when the schools start to reopen [in person]? This information is very valuable going forward, so we hope these types of errors don't occur again.

In Florida, state agencies are cutting ties with a major lab, in this case, Quest Diagnostics. What do you think its options are instead? What would you think is available as an alternative?

PRINS: The rapid testing can be really beneficial, especially for people who maybe have symptoms. They may be more likely to have COVID and rapid is pretty good at, if you get a positive rapid test, that's a pretty good indicator that you actually do have COVID-19.

The problem with the rapid testing, though, is that if you get a negative rapid test, it may not necessarily be truly negative. So you actually have to follow that up with a PCR test anyway if you get a negative rapid test. So it doesn't necessarily cut out the need for some of that PCR testing that's going on.

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Verónica Zaragovia