11 Investigates what took so long for COVID-19 testing to be widely implemented

Hundreds of COVID-19 tests are now conducted daily in Western Pennsylvania, a stark contrast from earlier this month.

When it comes to getting information from COVID-19 it usually comes from the Allegheny County Health Department, whether it's confirmed cases or positive tests. One thing they don't do is test patients themselves. That's done through the state, private labs or local hospitals.

11 Investigates found out getting to the point where the tests needed are getting done has taken awhile, something that’s finally getting where experts believe it needs to be.

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“She was completely out of breath, couldn't breathe, couldn't talk, barely could walk,” said Brian Stypula.

Stypula's wife was tested for COVID-19 last week and is still waiting on the results.

Testing capabilities have ramped up statewide, but it’s come after weeks of delays.

Problems with the initial tests themselves, sent out by the CDC last month, helped cause those delays.

For weeks, only people who came in direct contact with a person who tested positive or traveled to a “hot spot” could be tested.

In late February and early March, 11 investigates found the Pennsylvania Department of Health was only testing around 25 people per day for COVID-19 through its state lab.

  • On March 6, that increased to 150 tests per day statewide.
  • On March 17, just 13 days ago, UPMC developed and began testing for COVID-19. As of Thursday, they’ve administered more than 1,700 hundred tests in western and central Pennsylvania.
  • On March 18, Allegheny Health Network also began drive-through testing at three Allegheny County locations.

By that point, schools statewide were closed and non-life-sustaining businesses would soon follow.

“I think when the numbers are low because we haven’t tested, we think this isn’t a problem and this isn’t a problem in my community,” said Duquesne University’s dean of nursing, Mary Ellen Glasgow.

Glasgow began her career working on the AIDS epidemic. Like COVID-19, she said testing was crucial in understanding and containing the AIDS epidemic.

Channel 11 reporter Aaron Martin: How critical is it to have that testing capability at the level it’s at now, compared to three weeks ago?

“It’s absolutely critical. We have to identify patients that might be sick, really as soon as they might be infected or contagious,” said UPMC infectious disease physician Dr. Gavin Harris.

Harris said they're expecting a surge in COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks -- although that surge hasn't come yet.

“We’ve had a tremendous luxury of time, and I think that’s really helped in our efforts to combat this,” Harris said.

A spokesman for the PA Health Department said there’s no way of tracking how many tests are given across the state. However, they are giving daily updates on the number of confirmed cases, numbers that continue to grow.