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Waiting on test results? It’s taking 8 days or more to process coronavirus cases in Tampa Bay

More than 6,000 people were tested for COVID-19 at drive-thru sites in Tampa Bay. But many report long delays in results.
Drive-through testing was available at multiple BayCare Health Systems clinics since March 18. Many are still awaiting their results, which now could take eight days or longer.
Drive-through testing was available at multiple BayCare Health Systems clinics since March 18. Many are still awaiting their results, which now could take eight days or longer. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 28, 2020
Updated Mar. 28, 2020

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LARGO - Lisa Keils has lost track of what Netflix shows she’s watched in self-quarantine.

“Nothing good,” she quipped. “I’m on the foreign films now, things with subtitles.”

Saturday marked Keils’ ninth day isolated in her bedroom waiting for a phone call from BayCare Health Systems to tell her whether or not she tested positive for COVID-19. Her fever started March 17. She started looking for answers two days later.

Keils, 46, joined more than 6,000 people in Tampa Bay to drive through one of the outdoor sites that have popped up since March 18 to test people for the fast-spreading coronavirus.

Related: Here's where to get tested for COVID-19 in Tampa Bay

Keils visited the BayCare drive-thru testing site at Carillon in St. Petersburg March 19. Outside a tent, a medical professional decked out in a mask and face shield used a long swab to collect a sample from her nose. They told her to expect a call with results in five to seven days.

Nine days later, Keils still doesn’t know whether she contracted COVID-19. Her low-grade fever has been persistent. The headaches are still thudding away.

But mostly she’s worried about her 71-year-old mother who lives with her in Largo. Thankfully, they each have their own bathroom and plenty of hand sanitizer and wipes. Keils tries not to leave her room at all. She eats her meals curled up on her bed.

Lisa Keils has spent the last eight days quarantined in her room as she waits a call from BayCare Health Systems with the results from her COVID-19 test on March 19.
Lisa Keils has spent the last eight days quarantined in her room as she waits a call from BayCare Health Systems with the results from her COVID-19 test on March 19. [ Courtesy of Lisa Keils ]

“I’m pissed off,” Keils said. “I want to get out of my bedroom, but I don’t want to go around my mom. Mostly, I just want to know."

It’s impossible to know how many people across Tampa Bay are playing the same waiting game.

Providers have been quick to share the number of people they’ve tested — BayCare alone swabbed more than 5,000 — but information on how many of those tests have been processed is harder to come by.

BayCare spokesman Vjollca Hysenlika said the healthcare provider has received some results from the private labs analyzing the tests, but would not share how many.

“Unfortunately, there’s a backlog of results at these private laboratories and the backlogs are growing,” Hysenlika said. “We know quite a few people have been frustrated because they’re waiting on results. We share their frustrations, trust me.”

Related: Confused about coronavirus testing? Here's what you need to know.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill told elected officials trying to determine the best path forward for the county that people should now expect to wait eight days or longer for results.

The delay means more than endless Netflix streaming and concerned patients. It means state and local leaders who are making decisions on how to grapple with this worldwide pandemic are basing their actions on data that is a week or more behind.

As of Friday morning, the state reported 2,900 cases and 35 deaths. Tampa Bay’s four counties account for 277 of those cases and 3 deaths.

Those numbers will only grow as private labs such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp analyze the backlog of tests and share the results with patients and the state Department of Health.

When BayCare first started looking into drive-thru testing, they were hoping the two private labs could turn results around in two to four days. That number then grew to five to seven. Now BayCare is telling patients to expect to wait a week or longer.

“Obviously it would be a lot better if we had the data,” said Merrill, who was responsible for walking county elected officials through their options for stay-at-home orders and curfews.

Vehicles line up at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Raymond James Stadium site on Wednesday, March 25, 2020  in Tampa.  Residents that wish to be tested had to be approved and registered online before arriving at the site.
Vehicles line up at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Raymond James Stadium site on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Tampa. Residents that wish to be tested had to be approved and registered online before arriving at the site. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Neither LabCorp nor Quest Diagnostics could provide the Tampa Bay Times with Florida-specific numbers for how many tests they have processed.

LabCorp spokesman Mike Geller said Friday that the turnaround time for results is approximately four to five days. In Tampa Bay, many have waited double that time.

Quest Diagnostics is testing results at 12 laboratories throughout the country and expects to expand its testing capacity to 30,000 tests per day, spokeswoman Kimberly Gorode said.

But those numbers are nationwide, and Gorode was unable to provide information on how long people in Tampa Bay can expect to wait.

“Unfortunately I cannot address turnaround time and volume by state at this time as this is an evolving situation,” Gorode wrote in an email.

Hysenlika said the delay is beyond BayCare’s control. Once the health care provider does receive results, a team of employees is in charge of contacting patients and letting them know whether they are positive or negative.

Kevin Deeb, 64, is still waiting for his results after getting tested more than a week ago. Vince Cocks, who got tested after experiencing shortness of breath, is also in the dark. He finally reached a nurse at BayCare Saturday who told him they are now expecting results to take 10 to 14 days.

Cocks is on day nine.

“Meanwhile," he said, "our lives are put on hold.”

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