Supply shortages slow down COVID-19 testing in North Carolina


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Health professionals across the country are experiencing shortages of supplies needed for COVID-19 tests and it’s leading to a slow down of test results, according to Dr. Melissa Miller.

Miller is the director of the Clinical Microbiology and Molecular Microbiology Laboratories at UNC Health. In a media briefing Wednesday, Miller said there’s really no national strategy for what we need to do about the constant shortages.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that we did not have a plan.

Dr. Melissa Miller

 Miller said shortages of testing supplies are making it hard to keep up with the demand for testing. She said some tests rely on supplies from a single manufacturer.

“If there’s issue with quality control of a particular lot of re-agents, if that doesn’t pass, then everybody in the country is going to experience shortages,” said Miller.

Back in March, the country experienced a shortage of swabs needed to take samples from potentially infected people. Miller said swabs are not longer an issue.

Shortages change regularly. Some weeks, the plastics used to build tests are in low supply. Other weeks, Miller said reagents – chemicals needed to run tests – are in shortage.

Miller said this week, four items needed for three different kinds of tests are back ordered.

We’ve seen this is in really bad flu season before but not at this level.

Dr. Melissa Miller

The current shortage is partly due to increased demand.

A deeper look at the numbers show March saw an average of 1,300 tests a day. Flash forward to July where figures show an average of 19,000 tests daily.

The combination of a surge in testing along with supply shortage has slowed down the return of testing. That creates a domino effect that impacts contact tracing. The longer it takes for a test result to come back, the more people a potentially infected person may be coming in contact with.

“That does definitely impact the spread of the disease so faster is always better,” explained Dr. Miller.

Shortages have become so dire, several COVID-19 testing sites in California and Nebraska were forced to shut down.

“I do think they’ve gotten out front of this. I do think at some point, there may be reagent shortages that impact the number of patients we can test,’ said Miller.

For now, the director said they will continue to test at max capacity hoping supply issues will be resolved.

Brett Giroir, assistant health secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and member of federal COVID-19 task force, said Wednesday states are getting the supplies they need.

“We are ripe with swabs and media, the states tell us how much they need, we work with them to set those goals based on their state testing plans,” Grior said.

Miller however says there is no national plan to address shortage issues. She says she never knows how much of each supply will be available but it’s often not enough.

This is something that everyone is struggling with throughout the country. This is not normal. If we learn anything from this pandemic, it would be not to repeat this again.

Dr. Melissa Miller

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