As state and national experts are expecting a spike in COVID-19 cases due to businesses reopening and large-scale demonstrations, the county of San Diego’s testing apparatus grinded to a halt last week after a machine that runs the tests broke down.
The malfunction created a major backlog in the county’s testing process, delaying test results for thousands of people who could potentially be infected with the novel coronavirus.
“On June 8, our machine that runs the actual tests went down,” a county spokesperson told NBC 7 Investigates in response to questions about delayed results. “The fix took a couple of days. This created a backlog of about 4,500 specimens.”
The equipment failure comes as counties, states, and the national government look to testing as a strategy in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and using it as an indicator for making public health decisions such as when to open businesses and public places.
It’s no different in San Diego County, where local health officials and county leaders prioritized testing, setting a metric of around 5,200 tests per day as part of the county’s strategy to suppress the spread of the virus.
But the backlog has far wider implications than just the county failing to meet its testing goals. It meant that thousands of people who could be infected with the disease had to wait as long as 10 days for results. Many of those people, some of whom could have been carriers of the coronavirus, may have unwittingly spread the virus.
One person told NBC 7 they were currently waiting for their results after they were tested at the Mission Valley stadium testing site 10 days prior.
The impact on those people getting tested is unknown.
“My daughter tested positive,” said Karl Miller while in line for testing at the state-run site at SDCCU Stadium in Mission Valley. “I have been around her, so I wanted to play it safe.”
Roman Leon of Golden Hill told NBC 7 that he and his wife may be forced to cancel their trip to see family in Los Angeles if his results don’t come back in time. “If it takes longer than that, I don't even know if we are going to go.”
In the county’s statement, a spokesperson said that the county used outside labs to help process the tests while the county worked on fixing its broken testing machine.
“Many of those specimens were sent to an outside lab and Scripps,” said the spokesperson. “Our machine is back up and between our lab and with the outside help, the backlog should be caught up by Friday.”
Added the county spokesperson, “By end of Friday, there will have been a little over 2,500 tests that took three days, and just over 1,700 that took between 4-to-8 days. Most of the tests taken on June 9 have been reported back. There may be some remaining.”
The spokesperson was unaware of the machine’s malfunction until NBC 7 contacted the county asking questions about a potential testing issue.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher addressed the backlog during a June 17 press briefing.
“We have done a pretty good job as a county in terms of ramping up and increasing our need for testing,” said Fletcher. “It is natural that as you go through this you’re going to have hiccups, you’re going to have reporting delays, you’re going to have machines that break.”
According to Fletcher, the county processed 6,782 tests on June 17, many of which were part of the backlog.
“Over the last week we have been catching up a backlog of some state reporting tests, a backlog that developed because of a machine that broke,” he said. “We do think that the results that we are presently in right now are probably artificially a little bit higher because of some of those backlogs in reporting and testing.”
“We will keep breaking through every barrier in terms of having widespread testing and availability of results as quickly as we possibly can.”
As to any threat to public safety as a result of the backlog of COVID-19 tests, the county spokesperson said in many cases tests are ordered by physicians. "They are told when the test is ordered and what to do if they are symptomatic," said the spokesperson. "They are instructed to stay home, isolate until they get their results back."
But for residents such as Sydney Willard who had to get her test in anticipation of starting a new job, the backlog could prevent her from starting work.
“I feel like it should be shorter for the test results to come back,” said Willard. “It’s been three or four months, and I feel like testing would be faster by now.”