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Coronavirus Testing: Nationwide shortage of reagents limiting Hampton Roads hospitals, labs

It can take up to 10 days to get a COVID-19 test result, often due to a limited allocation of reagents, the chemicals or solutions used to determine a test result.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Hampton Roads hospital systems and labs are limited in how many coronavirus tests they can process because of a nationwide shortage of reagents; that's the chemical or solution that lab workers use to determine the result of a test.

Leaders of all four area healthcare systems - Sentara Healthcare, Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, Riverside Health System, and Bon Secours - all say the reagent shortage is a major detriment for testing and COVID-19 response.

"If we could test everyone we could really make a difference," said Dr. Mike Dacey, Riverside Health System President and COO during a conference call with Senator Mark Warner and other healthcare leaders. "But the reagents are a major shortage."

Lynn Onesty, System Director of Laboratory Services at Riverside Health System, said Riverside continues to limit testing to the most symptomatic patients because they can’t overwhelm their supply of reagents.

“That’s been our approach to kind of limit what comes in, versus having the specimens here and not being able to test," Onesty said. "We would like to expand services, but at this point, the lack of reagents does not allow us to do that.” 

During the pandemic, the reagent demand is outpacing the supply, so providers are allocating a certain amount to hospitals and labs. The allocations often fall well short of requests.

“It’s very inconsistent what we’re seeing with some of our vendors," Onesty said.

This can lead to long wait times for results, especially at commercial labs like Quest and LabCorp. Coronavirus patients and healthcare workers have reported waiting up to two weeks for test results, which is ineffective for epidemiological response and curbing the spread of the virus.

Senator Mark Warner said waiting 10 days for a test result is "basically worthless" and Dacey said with turnaround times that long: "It's not even worth sending the test."

Onesty said hospital systems are told the production of reagents is increasing, but they have no timeline for when they’ll start to receive bigger allocations. If the supply drops, that could be trouble for local hospital systems and labs, especially with recent surges in COVID-19 cases in Hampton Roads.

“If we don’t replace what we’re using, at some point we will not have enough to test any patients and that’s our largest concern," she said.

At Sentara Healthcare, Director of Laboratory Services Eric Young said he’s ready to process more tests.

“If we were able to have [more] reagent, we have enough staff, we have enough instrumentation to do more testing in our own labs," Young said.

Increased hospital testing could take reduce intake at commercial labs, which could decrease turnaround times and help contain the spread of the virus. However, that's not the current reality.

Currently, Hampton Roads hospital systems are preserving testing capabilities for patients with the most acute need, prioritizing symptomatic patients.

“We want to be able to provide the testing that folks want, from our physicians and our patients, and for us it’s a frustrating exercise when we can’t do that," Young said.