Following holiday testing shortage, Virginia announces new test centers
In the past three weeks, Virginia has broken state records for new COVID-19 cases, testing, positivity rates and more. In the Central region, the Virginia Department of Health reports that nearly one in every 100 people developed a new case of COVID during the week that ended Jan. 1.
That’s nearly double the previous peak in January 2021. And despite the now-dominant Omicron variant’s reportedly milder symptoms, it’s taking a toll on hospitals. VCU Medical Center announced this week that they’d postpone non-urgent procedures and the use of donated blood products immediately.
“[Omicron is] less likely to put people in the hospital, but when you have a multi-fold increase in the number of people getting it, even though it may be less virulent, we’re still getting fairly high hospitalization numbers,” said Dr. Ron Clark, chief medical officer at VCU Medical. “In fact, probably in the next week, Virginia will surpass the number of patients in the hospital with COVID-19 compared to the previous variant.”
This case surge, like previous ones, resulted in skyrocketing demand for tests. But many Virginians across the state struggled to find a test when they needed one. As the number of people at public testing events far exceed their capacity and pharmacy slots fill up, take-home tests have gone up in price or sold out altogether from online and brick-and-mortar stores.
Responding to an open request for comment from VPM News, Stephen Williams of Charlottesville said he came down with symptoms over the holidays but wasn’t able to locate any tests. Williams had planned to go to a drive-through testing event on Monday before the storm made that impossible. With snow and an uncertain COVID status, he was unable to check on family who lost power in Albemarle.
“A tree fell on their cars and they still have not regained electricity since yesterday. They haven’t been able to make a cell phone call to me that maintained a signal for more than 30 seconds before dropping out since yesterday afternoon,” Williams said Tuesday. “But I’ve been able to establish they are alive and staying warm with kerosene heaters.
“My plan at the moment is to wait until I feel well enough to dig out my car and get to the next drive-through testing site available.”
In a press conference earlier this week, deputy director of the state Office of Epidemiology Laurie Forlano said PCR tests are in good stock and the state has “sufficient laboratory capacity” to process them.
And the Governor’s office announced a plan on Thursday to put many of those PCR tests to use. The state will be standing up a series of Community Testing Centers, or CTCs, nearby existing vaccination centers. A CTC at Richmond Raceway in Henrico will open this Saturday, Jan 9.
There is, however, an ongoing shortage of rapid antigen tests which contributed to the overall issues over the holidays — Forlano said VDH is still waiting on weeks or even months-old orders from manufacturers. Most at-home tests on the market are rapid, so they’re subject to the shortage too.
Cat Long, public information officer for the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, described the demand spike and ensuing supply shortage as something of a perfect storm.
“We’re seeing an increased demand because of increased transmission and increased travel,” Long said. People aren’t getting at-home tests, so they’re turning to city and state-run events.
Although those events in theory have access to enough PCR tests from the state, staffing is extremely limited. At this stage of the pandemic, with a highly contagious variant, it’s difficult to find swabbers in particular. So, situations occur where crowds of people looking for tests are turned away.
Responding to VPM, Randi Taggart said, “my son (young adult) also had an exposure and drove all the way to Woodbridge for his testing appointment. After waiting over an hour in line (it was a drive-through test site) he was told they’d run out of tests, even though he’d scheduled an appointment.”
Despite shortages, there are still a wide variety of ways to get tested: through a doctor’s office, your local pharmacy, city and state testing events, and more. And the Biden Administration promises to finalize a plan to send tests directly to Americans this month.
But to avoid missing out on a still limited supply of tests and opportunities, Forlano says to plan ahead as much as possible.
She recommended using the PCR test, if timing allows you to quarantine for up to a week - although results take longer to process, they are more reliable.
Forlano also suggested that people without a known exposure who are looking to travel or see friends or family should consider the current strain on testing systems.
“We are also asking people to consider the criticality of that kind of testing and whether other options might be possible during this time of very high community transmission,” Forlano said. She recommends postponing plans, particularly with those more vulnerable to serious illness.
VCU’s Dr. Clark said he hopes this most recent surge will convince more people to get vaccinated — and asked anyone able to schedule a time to give blood with the American Red Cross.