Faster test results help make decisions

Amanda Jones, of the Sumter County Health Department, takes samples during COVID-19 testing in June at New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages.

Following several weeks of delays, labs are reporting quicker turnaround for COVID-19 test results. Quest Diagnostics announced Monday the average wait time had decreased to two to three days, compared to a week or more in July. This shortened window is helpful for patients trying to figure out how long they should be isolating, said Dr. Jeff Lowenkron, chief medical officer of The Villages Health. “Having it back in seven days, you’ve already reduced most of your quarantine,” he said. While many are interested in testing, those with symptoms likely have the most incentive for seeking it, he said. A negative result for people testing based on only curiosity doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have COVID-19 because they could have been exposed the day they were tested. “If you’re concerned, testing makes sense,” Lowenkron said. “The real key is going to be what can we do with the positive test, which may just be good symptom management.”

There are still no treatments for mild to moderate cases of COVID-19, though therapies including convalescent plasma are being used in hospital settings for the severely ill.

Florida, including the tri-county area, started to see an uptick in COVID-19 cases in June.

The Florida Department of Health reported 11.3% of Sumter County tests were positive Monday, compared to the state’s average of 10.3%. The county has averaged 7.5% positivity in the last two weeks.

Sumter County has a higher rate of hospitalizations and deaths compared to the state’s average.

Older adults are more likely to have severe complications from contracting the coronavirus, with people 55 and older accounting for 68% of the state’s hospitalizations and 93% of deaths. The average median age for the last two weeks’ cases in Sumter County has trended just below that to 54 years old.

Though the lower positivity rate is encouraging, Lowenkron said residents should not ease up on following social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing guidelines given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I still think the community’s done a really good job, but I think there’s still reason to be concerned,” Lowenkron said, adding the numbers are still higher than they were three months ago.

The Florida Department of Health in Sumter County is asking residents to continue being proactive when it comes to curbing cases.

“It is important to note that COVID-19 is still present in our community,” said Megan McCarthy, biological scientist and public information officer. “The Sumter County Health Department would like to encourage all residents to follow the One Goal One Florida initiative.”

That includes protecting vulnerable populations, practicing proper hygiene and social distancing and wearing a mask around others.

The Florida Department of Health offers free COVID-19 testing to residents, and no symptoms are required. Call 352-569-3102 to make an appointment.

Quest said it plans to further decrease turnaround times moving forward.

It’s now providing 150,000 COVID-19 diagnostic tests a day compared to 120,000 tests at the beginning of July, and plans to provide 185,000 tests a day by Labor Day.

On July 29, the company announced the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use authorization of a new RNA extraction method to further speed up testing.

Shortly before that, Quest received authorization for pooling.

For that technique, individual samples are combined into small batches.

A negative result for a batch means that all patients in that pool are considered negative, but if a positive result occurs for the batch, each sample is retested individually.

In July, Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized the weeklong turnaround time for some of the private labs the state has partnered with at drive-thru sites, saying they would no longer be giving business to companies that weren’t consistently meeting a two-day delivery window for test results.

“One thing that I think is clear is that we need to get these testing results back in a timely fashion,” DeSantis said.

Senior writer Ciara Varone can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5395, or ciara.varone@thevillagesmedia.com.