Surge in Coronavirus Cases Leaves Labs Overwhelmed, Tests Delayed
Five months into the pandemic after over 140,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, the nation still faces a serious delay in testing as cases surge across the country. That delay, as labs are overwhelmed and hard-hit areas face shortages of tests, could cover up a persistent rises in case numbers and could muddy strategies to combat the coronavirus, as health officials continue to find themselves one step behind the virus's rapid and often silent spread, experts said, as The New York Times reported.
Labs across the country are now facing what seems like an almost "infinite" demand, one expert says.
"We really do need to improve our turnaround times, primarily in areas and counties of outbreaks," Adm. Brett Giroir, a White House coronavirus task force member, said, as CNN reported.
Diagnostic labs are feeling the effects of the spike in cases, with a leading commercial lab saying testing results can now take up to two weeks for some patients, leaving doctors and patients feeling anxious about their results.
"The average test delay is too long," Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, as CNN reported "And that really undercuts the value of the testing, because you do the testing to find out who's carrying the virus and then quickly get them isolated so they don't spread it around."
As USA TODAY noted, labs are performing more COVID-19 tests than ever. Lab workers are strained and states are bidding against one another for the same, limited supplies.
"It's the Wild, Wild West," said Blair Holladay, CEO of American Society for Clinical Pathology, to USA TODAY. "There's been no national testing strategy ... so states are duking it out for supply chains. That's a problem."
Last week, labs reached an all-time high of more than 831,900 COVID tests, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Yet, that expansion in tests has created bottlenecks and slowed results for many Americans.
Quest Diagnostics said in a news release that average turnaround time for non-priority patients was seven days or more, according to USA TODAY. However, patients in hospitals, people preparing for acute surgery, and health care workers with symptoms are able to get results within a day.
"We've gone way backwards" in testing, said former New York health commissioner Nirav Shah, as USA TODAY reported. According to Shah, a senior scholar at Stanford University's Center for Clinical Excellence, the delay in results makes many of the tests irrelevant and increases the virus' spread.
Most patient samples must still be routed through laboratories for processing, and the growing demand is once again straining supplies, equipment, and trained technicians, which all causes shortages and delayed results, according to The New York Times.
"It's very important for people to be able to get the results in time, so they don't continue infecting people," said Pamela Martinez, an expert in disease dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to The New York Times. She noted that it's particularly important for asymptomatic people to know if they are carrying the virus. "Maybe if I take a test, but I don't have many symptoms, I'm not going to take the same precautions," she added.
If people have to wait one week or more for their test results, a negative result can give a false sense of security. Diagnostic testing searches for bits of the coronavirus' genetic material. It can only assess a person's health status from the time the sample was taken, and can't account for any subsequent exposures to the virus, of course, as noted by The New York Times.
Since the delays are widespread and people are reluctant to enter a risky situation unnecessarily, people who are not showing any symptoms of coronavirus are less likely to seek a test, which skews the numbers and gives an inaccurate picture of its spread.
In an ideal world, far more community testing would occur to catch some of these more silent cases. "That would give us more of an idea of how this disease is actually playing out," said Olivia Prosper, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to The New York Times.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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