SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — As coronavirus cases are spiking, and more people are getting tested for COVID-19 ahead of the holidays, CBS13 has learned the state’s new billion-dollar PerkinElmer lab is returning a high number of inconclusive test results which may be skewing the testing turnaround times provided by the state.
Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom presented some positive testing news ahead of the holiday. “The test turnaround is now 24 to 48 hours, which is much better than it’s ever been,” Newsom said.
However, those numbers are a bit deceiving.
California’s new $25 million coronavirus testing lab is supposed to revolutionize testing. The state’s $1.7 billion contract with PerkinElmer requires the diagnostics company to return results out of the lab within 24 to 48 hours.
According to the state’s testing dashboard, last week commercial labs and medical centers were returning 90-91% of COVID test results within two days. However, the state’s new lab in Valencia returned only 35% of results in under two days.
Now, CBS13 has learned the state is including inconclusive test results among the results that they claim are returned to patients within two days, even though inconclusive results don’t indicate if you actually have COVID.
Data provided by the California Department of Public Health reveals that of the 100,000 tests processed by the new lab as of Tuesday, 1 out of every 29 were inconclusive.
Four of those inconclusive test results from the new lab belonged to CBS13 Investigative Reporter Julie Watts’s family. They were among the first to have their COVID test results processed by the state’s new lab. Both her husband and her son’s initial tests came back inconclusive.
When they were retested, as recommended by the state, Watts’s son’s retests also came back inconclusive — twice. It took three weeks and four tests before he finally got conclusive results.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services Secretary, told CBS13 last week that the state had identified the problem.
“We feel like we’re on the road to having fewer inconclusive tests so that the lab can do what it was meant to do,” Dr. Ghaly said.
New data obtained by CBS13 reveals that one out of every 25 tests were inconclusive in the lab’s first week. One out of 50 was still inconclusive last week.
While the state did not provide us with the number of inconclusive tests coming from all other labs for a comparison, Sacramento County did. They received 95 times more inconclusive results from the PerkinElmer lab than all other labs combined during the first two weeks of November.
Sacramento County does not have any state-run testing sites and does not use the state-run lab, however they do get results for Sacramento County residents who may have been tested at state-run facilities outside of the county.
The state’s contract with PerkinElmer sets a March deadline for the new lab to be fully operational and returning results in within the mandated 48 hours.
“That lab is just getting up. It will take a number of months,” Newsom said during this week’s press conference. “Every week, more and more tests are being conducted and over the course of the next few months, tens of thousands a day and eventually over 150,000 tests a day.”
While the number of tests processed by all labs across the state has increased substantially since September, from 632,000 during the first full week of September to more than a million the first week of November, the aggregate wait time for results has increased only slightly, from 1.2 to 1.3 days over the same period.
But, again, those numbers can be a bit deceiving considering we now know they include inconclusive results.
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