After living by himself in Philadelphia’s Logan Square neighborhood for most of the coronavirus pandemic, James Perelman knew he wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving a few miles north with his family in Mount Airy. In order to make the holiday gathering as safe as possible, Perelman, 32, scheduled an appointment for a COVID-19 test at Vybe Urgent Care at 15th and Spring Garden Streets on Nov. 13.
“The doctors didn’t give me a signal about how long it would take to process the test, but I was under the impression that it would take a few days,” Perelman said. “But then it got to be the middle of the week, and I hadn’t heard anything.”
Perelman said he emailed Vybe about his test results on Nov. 18. A doctor responded, saying that if Perelman’s test was negative, he would get a text, and if it was positive, the clinic would call him. The doctor also encouraged Perelman to reach out again in the next few days if he still did not know his test results.
“Some more time went by, and I still didn’t hear anything,” Perelman said. “It was so close to Thanksgiving that I was scrambling to figure out what I was going to do.”
In the end, he ordered a test from Pixel, which provides at-home kits used to collect a sample that is then mailed to LabCorp for processing. The results came back in two days, and Perelman stopped following up with Vybe. He still hasn’t received his test results.
As the number of coronavirus cases climbed and people prepared to travel for Thanksgiving last month (against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health) testing also increased, leading some Philadelphians’ results to slip through the cracks.
In order to curb the spread of the coronavirus effectively, public health experts recommend that people who get tested receive their results within 24 to 48 hours. In the days, sometimes weeks, that people wait for test results, they could potentially expose others in the community to the virus. And without a negative test result, people are often forced to quarantine for the full 14 days recommended by the CDC for most of the pandemic. While early testing delays appeared to ease along with the virus in the summer, the recent increase of cases has exposed issues that persist in the testing process.
Rachel Shapiro, who lives in South Philadelphia, got tested after a trip to California in early November, because she was concerned about being on a “completely packed” return flight. After searching online, Shapiro found a free testing site in her neighborhood operated by Philadelphia FIGHT, a nonprofit that provides HIV/AIDS services as well as primary care through community health centers.
“On Nov. 12, I went to the site and waited 40 minutes in the cold rain to get tested,” said Shapiro, who is in her 50s. “I asked exactly how many days I should expect to wait before getting the results back and was told three to six.”
After waiting eight days, Shapiro called the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, which helps fund the nonprofit, to figure out why her result was being held up. A secretary took her message, but Shapiro didn’t get a call back.
“I then called my councilman, and then the health department again on the 12th day,” she said. “It took 17 phone calls and I was on hold for hours. By the 14th day, I still hadn’t gotten my result back, but at that point I knew that I didn’t have COVID-19. I know that I had fewer issues than other people, who may have needed a test for work.”
The city’s Department of Public Health has been hearing about delays in communicating test results, said agency spokesperson James Garrow.
“It’s tough for us to pin down because there are several steps in the process where delays could come up,” Garrow said in an email. “Delays like these aren’t unexpected as testing is higher than ever before, not only in Philadelphia but across the country.”
Garrow noted that labs can get backed up analyzing samples, or providers can get backed up calling patients. He said the health department works with providers to find new lab capacity if needed.
Vybe, which has 11 clinics in the Philadelphia area, has experienced a slight uptick in line with the national testing increase. But it’s not clear whether that has contributed to the long delays some patients have faced getting results, said Peter Hotz, the company’s president and CEO. Currently, the clinics usually wait about two to five days to receive results from the labs, he said.
“Once in a while we might have an outlier,” Hotz said. “Sometimes results are really delayed for reasons we don’t totally understand. We’re doing the best we can to keep up with it.”
Vincent Carter, 31, needed a coronavirus test after a temporary hire at his workplace tested positive. Carter, who lives in East Falls, said that while he works from home most of the time, he had gone into the office the day after the employee was there and wanted to take precautions. He chose to get tested at a Vybe clinic because his wife had previously gotten a test there with no problems.
“I got my test on a Saturday and was expecting to get results early the next week, but they never showed up,” said Carter, who finally got them two weeks later. “I didn’t want to go back to work or have my wife’s mom help with childcare until the test result came back.”
Hotz said Vybe is revamping its communication system, which currently encourages people to access results online. He’s hoping to move to a more streamlined platform that allows doctors to tell patients of their results via text. But that addresses only part of the problem.
“Whenever there are multiple steps in a process, there are more points that can break down,” Hotz said. “It’s been a challenge for us to stay on top of the labs as well.”