Covid-19 testing backlog: NHLS gradually reducing unprocessed tests, Parliament hears

The NHLS is making inroads in the testing backlog.
The NHLS is making inroads in the testing backlog.
  • On Wednesday, the backlog of Covid-19 tests in the country was 63 244.
  • The backlog has been decreasing since the last week of May.
  • The NHLS has the capacity to do 35 000 tests a day, but the availability of test kits, a global problem, hampers this.

The National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) is working hard to make inroads into the backlog of Covid-19 tests, and according to the statistics provided to both houses of Parliament's health committees, they are making progress.

On 25 May, the "exact figure of specimens that have not been processed" was 96 480, the Department of Health confirmed after much confusion.

On Wednesday, the NHLS informed the committees the backlog is 63 244.

"As of 8 June 2020, the NHLS has conducted 492 704 tests," NHLS CEO Kamy Chetty told the MPs.

She said the NHLS has increased the number of tests done each month with a massive increase in the number of tests being performed during the month of May, where the figures more than doubled between April and May.


In the first week of June, 105 023 tests were done. This is already almost half of the 232 862 tests that were done in the whole of May and more than April's 94 203 tests. In March, 6 341 tests were done and, in February, 276.

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In the Western Cape, the province with the vast majority of the country's Covid-19 cases, 114 381 tests were done by 8 June, with 21 232 positive cases and 814 inconclusive.

The Western Cape has a positivity rate of 18.56%, much higher than the national average of 5.9%. The Eastern Cape has the second highest positivity rate with 5.4%.

Unprocessed specimens are specimens that have been at a laboratory for longer than three days after it has been registered.

A reasonable time to clear a sample through the laboratory, if all test kits and resources are available, is 48 to 72 hours.

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The downward trend in the backlog is illustrated by the following: On 21 May, the backlog was 101 000 specimens; by 25 May, it was 96 480; by 28 May, it was 83 767; by 4 June, it was 81 069; by 6 June, it was 70 219; and by 10 June, it was 63 244.

While the NHLS' machinery gives it the capacity to do 35 000 tests a day, it only does about 10 000 because of the availability of the test kits.

Chetty said each person who is tested is advised to self-isolate for 14 days, which should prevent people from spreading the disease. Therefore, the backlog itself shouldn't be affecting people's behaviour.

She said the specimens were stored under very specific conditions, so there shouldn't be any contamination.

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