Testing issues cloud scope of California's virus outbreak

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Los Angeles Fire Department officials deliver testing kits to a waiting motorists at a COVID-19 drive-up testing site in Elysian Park, Thursday, April 2, 2020. Officials say hand-washing and keeping a safe social distance are priorities in battling the COVID-19 virus. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

LOS ANGELES – California is ramping up testing for coronavirus even as a backlog of 59,000 pending tests is growing, delaying some people from getting results for up to 12 days and leaving an incomplete picture of how widespread the outbreak is in the state.

Testing rolled out slowly in California but is accelerating now. More than 90,000 tests have been administered statewide, but nearly two-thirds of those results were still pending, according to state figures.

“The backlogs are not necessarily getting better, in real time, but we’re hopeful,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday.

Newsom said it was a national problem — as is the shortage of tests and a lack of the masks, gloves and other protection healthcare workers must wear to administer tests from people who are possibly carrying the highly contagious virus.

The state may be able to fast-track test results as more people receive blood-based tests, Newsom said. Testing that relies on taking nasal swabs, the most prominent initial testing measure, is primarily responsible for delays.

The average wait time in Los Angeles County is five to six days, but some results have taken 10 or 12 days, said Barbara Ferrer, the county health director. The county uses a mix of privately and publicly run labs.

Increasing the number of tests without the capacity to handle the volume at labs “doesn’t really help us as much as it ought to if there are really long waits for people to find out whether they are positive,” Ferrer said. “It’s really important for us to know if they’re positive — both for their medical treatment but also so that we can immediately move those people into isolation, identify their close contacts and have their close contacts quarantining.”

The coronavirus mainly is spread though coughs and sneezes. For most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.