Testing delays scrutinized as Wolf announces state aid for Lehigh Valley firm

    Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

    Democratic lawmakers grilled state Health Department officials on COVID-19 testing issues in Pennsylvania at a hearing Tuesday.

    Across the state, citizens have reported delays of up to two weeks in receiving test results. Gov. Tom Wolf even acknowledged the delay in a press conference last week.

    But the acknowledgment was cold comfort to some lawmakers during a Harrisburg hearing held by the House Democratic Policy Committee.

    “If we’re getting tests so long afterwards, seven or 14 days, even after three days, it seems to me they are almost valueless except from a statistical point of view,” Rep. Steve McCarter, D-Montgomery, said. “They don’t help us control the pandemic.”

    Dr. Wendy Braund, with the Department of Health, agreed that the delay was “problematic,” but added that the data is not useless.

    “The positive test is still going to guide the recommended behavior,” Braund said.

    Another agency official, Sarah Boateng, added that there are “some tests that are taking far too long. But I want the committee to know it is not all tests.”

    Both cited the state lab in Exton, Chester County, as an example of a well-oiled testing machine.

    According to department spokesperson Nate Wardle, the lab can process up to 1,200 tests a day, and currently operates at roughly three-fourths percent capacity.

    At peak, the Exton lab could process 5.5 percent of the state’s average daily total of 21,636 tests over the past seven days.

    Speaking last week, Wolf and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said that delays were due to stressed testing resources nationwide due to the second wave of the coronavirus this summer.

    Overall, the federal government has been absent from acquiring testing resources, leaving a patchwork procurement process to individual states. 

    It’s started “a sort of COVID-19 nationwide Hunger Games,” quipped Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, during the hearing.

    Last week, seven states east of the Mississippi with Republican and Democratic governors announced they would jointly purchase testing materials to pressure companies to ramp up production, according to the Washington Post.

    Pennsylvania was not asked to join the group. Instead, on Tuesday, Wolf revealed in a press conference that the state had awarded a little more than $1 million in state aid — half of it as a grant, the other half a tax credit — to a Bethlehelm-based firm, OraSure, to expand rapid testing production.

    “Essentially,” OraSure CEO Stephen Tang said a press conference with Wolf, their test will be “a lab on a swab.”

    The funding can be taken away if OraSure does not create a promised 177 jobs to produce the new tests.

    In May, the Wolf administration set out to test two percent of its population each month as it lifted its statewide stay-at-home order.

    After early testing troubles, officials said last week that they exceeded that mark, and now test 4 percent of the population each month.

    Those results put Pennsylvania among the top 10  states in the nation for the number of tests conducted. But data from Johns Hopkins University ranked the commonwealth 48th nationally when counting tests relative to the state’s population.

    Need to get tested for COVID-19 in Pennsylvania? Use this map from the Department of Health to find a COVID-19 testing site near you. Click here to see if a Rite-Aid nearby is offering tests, and here to sign up for a test through the Quest/Walmart partnership.