As coronavirus testing surged across the country in early July, Elmwood, NJ-based BioReference Labs made the decision to temporarily stop accepting new tests. A report in the Wall Street Journal explores the consequences of that decision.

The testing facilities of BioReference Laboratories Inc. were overwhelmed, leading to a crippling backlog of thousands of patient samples. To catch up, the New Jersey-based company decided to halt new tests for several days. 

“Our backlog was so significant,” said BioReference Executive Chairman Jon Cohen. The plan worked, he says, even though he says his company “took a lot of heat for the pause.” Afterward, average turnaround time for tests at BioReference fell to about two to three days from roughly a week, Mr. Cohen says. 

That improved performance, and increasing testing capacity, allowed BioReference to expand its testing services to the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and Major League Soccer, as well as pharmacies such as CVS HealthCorp. 

Not every lab company felt it could make that trade-off, as an avalanche of test samples poured into labs in late June and July. The two biggest Covid- 19 testing laboratories in the U.S., Quest Diagnostics and Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings, kept taking in tests despite increasing backlogs that pushed turnaround times for results to a week or more as cases ballooned after dozens of states opened their economies. 

BioReference’s move to stop taking in new tests—and its rivals’ decision to keep accepting them—highlights a confounding dilemma the nation’s biggest labs faced this summer as millions of Americans got sick, overwhelming testing capacity. While Quest and LabCorp raced to expand, they were unable to keep up with what became a tidal wave of tests flooding their facilities across the country. 

It is a dilemma labs could face again in the fall and winter if another wave of coronavirus hits the U.S., experts say. 

Read more from the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and from BioReference Laboratories.