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Florida cuts ties with Quest Diagnostics lab for 75,000 withheld coronavirus tests

The lab withheld nearly 75,000 coronavirus tests that date back to April, according to the Florida Department of Health
Drive-through testing was available at the Quest Diagnostics lab parking lot on Monday, March 23, 2020 in Tampa.
Drive-through testing was available at the Quest Diagnostics lab parking lot on Monday, March 23, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 1, 2020|Updated Sep. 1, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the Florida Department of Health to no longer work with Quest Diagnostics after the laboratory violated state law and failed to report nearly 75,000 coronavirus tests that date back to April in a timely manner.

The backlog from Quest was behind a significant jump in COVID-19 cases reported on Tuesday. Florida recorded 7,569 coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period. Without the backlog of tests, there would have been 3,773 coronavirus cases reported for the day instead, state health officials said.

“To drop this much unusable and stale data is irresponsible,” DeSantis said in a statement Tuesday. “I believe that Quest has abdicated their ability to perform a testing function in Florida that the people can be confident in. As such I am directing all executive agencies to sever their COVID-19 testing relationships with Quest effective immediately.”

Most of the data was more than two weeks old, with some cases dating back nearly five months, according to the health department. The majority of the backlogged tests came from mid-June to mid-July, when Florida was reporting record-high cases. Despite the backlog, all patients who were tested were notified about their results.

In a written statement, Quest Diagnostics said the delay was because of a technical issue. The commercial clinical lab company, which operates across the U.S. and in Mexico and Brazil, said they have processed and reported about 1.4 million test results for Florida and that they remain open to working with the Florida Department of Health. The New Jersey-based company said they apologized for the delay, but that it has been resolved.

“Quest Diagnostics has provided more COVID-19 testing on behalf of the citizens of Florida than any other laboratory and we believe we are well positioned to continue to effectively aid patient care and public health response for the state,” read the company’s statement.

A spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management said Quest Diagnostics was only operating in a limited number of state-run testing sites.

“The state uses several labs at state-supported testing sites, and we have no concerns with transitioning the few sites that utilized Quest to labs that will be able to step in and provide COVID-19 testing while meeting expectations and following Florida law,” said spokesman Jason Mahon in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

DeSantis’s office was told Monday night that the nearly 75,000 tests were going to be entered all at once. Without the Quest Diagnostics backlogged data, the department calculated the positivity rate for Monday’s cases would be 5.9 percent. With the new Quest Diagnostics cases, it jumped to 6.8 percent, state officials said.

Johns Hopkins University recorded Florida’s average weekly positivity rate at 12 percent on Tuesday.

Florida also added 190 coronavirus deaths Tuesday, bringing the total statewide to 11,521 people. The weekly death average is about 115 people announced dead per day.

The Tampa Bay region added 817 coronavirus cases and 15 deaths Tuesday. Five of the deaths were in Pinellas County, four were in Polk and two were reported each in Citrus, Hernando and Manatee counties.

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Meanwhile, 3,700 people across Florida were in the hospital with a primary diagnosis of coronavirus on Tuesday, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration. About 600 were in the Tampa Bay area. That number has steadily declined from its peak in mid-July, when nearly 10,000 people were hospitalized.

About 26 percent of hospital beds and 23 percent of intensive care unit beds were available statewide on Tuesday. In Tampa Bay, about 25 percent of hospital beds and about 21 percent of ICU beds were open.

Quest Diagnostics has processed some of the largest volumes of coronavirus tests from Florida over the past six months. Only one other laboratory appears to have run more tests - Laboratory Corporation of America, another national chain of commercial-sized labs. Quest conducted at least 13 percent of Florida’s more than 6 million tests run, according to the department of health.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he expects Florida officials would ask Quest Diagnostics for a detailed explanation of what happened, and that other states would also be inquiring about their own results.

He said the backlogged tests would lead to delayed contact tracing efforts, which could skew the overall picture of disease spread in the community.

Schaffner said he hoped the state could replace Quest and their testing capacity, “because speaking as clinicians, we would like to test more rather than less.”

In a Tuesday morning phone call with hospital officials, Molly McKinstry, a deputy secretary at the Agency for Health Care Administration, said new federal regulations will be finalized and published this week affecting laboratory reporting and nursing-home reporting of COVID-19 results. McKinstry said the state anticipates there will be penalties for failure to comply with the federal regulations.

“Please make sure that … any lab issues you’re involved with, whether hospital-based labs, point-of-care devices or a lab you contact with for services, please make sure that that reporting is happening timely to the Department of Health. It’s incredibly important to monitor the impact of cases in our state, among other things,” McKinstry said on the phone call.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.

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