Zika testing backlog breeds anxiety

Anne Schindler reporting on 9/22

Sammy Mack is four months pregnant, living in Miami and working as a health reporter at the city’s public radio station. It’s her job to cover Zika, but it’s no ordinary assignment.

“I would rather not be on this side of a news story,” she admits. “But it’s given me a lot of interesting insight into what this experience is like for pregnant women.”

Unfortunately, she’s also shared in their frustrations, like the state’s Zika testing backlog.

Since Gov. Rick Scott announced free Zika tests for all pregnant women three weeks ago, the state has administered more than 2,500. From the start, state health department officials promised an average turnaround of less than two weeks.

“Initially I had been told 7-10 business days,” says Mack. “That came and went.”

In the course of her reporting, Mack learned that she was one of hundreds of women whose tests were taking weeks longer than expected. Tests are processed at state Department of Health labs, and if results are positive or inconclusive, they are passed to the CDC for further testing.

Mack worried her test delay might indicate a positive result.

“The word I hear most is nerve-wracking,” says Mack. “There are all sorts of tests women go through that are very high-stakes. This one is different.”

The backlog isn’t just a matter of anxiety. Test delays can have serious treatment implications, for both mother and baby.

Because Zika can cause severe birth defects, or even be fatal to a fetus, some women consider terminating the pregnancy. Weeks of delays can make that decision more harrowing -- or even impossible, since Florida prohibits abortions after 24 weeks, except to save the mother's life. 

Even in a full-term pregnancy, timely test results matter. When a woman gives birth without knowing her results, doctors must treat the baby as if it had Zika exposure. Extensive and invasive tests may follow.

“That can mean a lot of extra tests blood tests, potentially a spinal tap,” says Mack. “So it changes potentially the treatment of the newborn.”

Mack’s reporting on this issue may have moved the needle a bit. A health department spokesperson said they understand a Zika infection during pregnancy is “scary for expectant mothers” and that the governor has asked the CDC for additional lab workers to help process tests.

The state didn’t answer First Coast News’ inquiries about how many tests have been passed to the CDC. Mack herself reported there were 174 as of last week – a number that would not account for a backlog in the hundreds.

It did not explain Mack’s own delay. She eventually learned her test was complete – and sitting on a shelf in the state lab in Jacksonville. It was negative.

She waited 5 weeks.


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