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Commercial labs step up to help with COVID-19 testing

Getting people tested is vital, an Atlanta-based lab is working to expand that.

ATLANTA — There aren’t enough doctors and hospitals doing COVID-19 tests, according to one commercial lab that’s ready to run 800 or more tests a day.

LifeHope Labs, just miles from the CDC, is actively running COVID-19 samples and reported the first positive case more than a week ago. This company, just like other commercial labs across the country, is now running tests on specimens for the virus collected by healthcare providers. 

But they say the samples are coming in at a trickle. 

“We are prepared and ready to go and we are under our capacity currently,” said Tim Allen, CEO of LifeHope.

11Alive has dedicated an entire team of investigative journalists to look into COVID-19 testing, as part of our commitment to report on the facts. 

We’ve been reporting on patients with symptoms of the novel virus and who are getting turned away from doctors’ offices, hospitals, state health labs and the CDC for testing

“So I call my doctor this morning and it starts this two and a half-hour run-around,” said Cheryl, an at-risk 62-year-old who told 11Alive she couldn’t get tested for the virus. 

“Health care providers, they don’t want infected people coming to the clinic,” Allen said. 

RELATED: Coronavirus real-time updates: Two more deaths reported in Georgia

For doctors who are swabbing patients for specimens to be later sent and tested at labs, they are using back entrances and protective gear to collect each sample. 

“If we infect our health care providers, the system will shut down. That is a scary thought to me,” Allen added. 

But COVID-19 testing risks still remain high while payments are low. 

Healthcare providers tell us insurance reimbursements aren’t currently covering lab costs to run the expensive genetic tests - a type of testing still solely being used in the United States - for coronavirus. 

The federal government has promised free testing for all but there’s currently no mechanism for labs to recoup the costs from the government. 

“We can do 846 per day. That’s our capacity on a 12-hour shift. We could double our capacity if we doubled our staffing, but right now we haven’t had the volume request,” Allen said

It takes four hours to run these tests and they can be processed at 46 a time in each machine but the lab equipment and staff still cost money. 

“We’ve been running probably half our tests that we haven’t been paid for, or not getting paid for,” Allen said. 

The lab and the logistics company both say they could start shipping kits to thousands of people immediately with a turn-around of one day but only if they get government assurances of payment. 

Yet, they claim they can’t get state and federal officials to return their calls. 

“You’re willing to do this at a loss if you have to?” 11Alive's Chief Investigator Brendan Keefe asked. 

“We are. Tim and me both. The lab is doing it at a loss, and we are too. Because we have our patients and we’ve got people reaching out to us, some of them crying on the phone because they’ve been turned away and they don’t know what to do,” Stewart said. 

LifeHope said it’s also working with an Atlanta area hospital to do drive-thru testing with one day to report results, still not knowing how their costs will be covered. 

As of 10:20 AM (ET) there have been more than 200,000 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins tracking tool. So far, more than 8,200 deaths and 82,000 total recovered cases have been reported. 

11Alive is focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus.  We want to keep you informed about the latest developments while ensuring that we deliver confirmed, factual information. 

We will track the most important coronavirus elements relating to Georgia on this page. Refresh often for new information. 

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