Many left waiting in hustle for virus tests
Lines, delays overload facilities as demand soars before holiday
Virginia residents seeking coronavirus tests ahead of family gatherings that health officials have advised against are experiencing lines stretching two to four hours, limited appointments and delayed test results.
Demand has boomed in recent weeks as Thanksgiving nears. Statewide the seven-day average of cases has swelled to a recordbreaking 2,403; amonth ago, that number was
Yet as people rush to clear their consciences ahead of the holiday, health officials warn that a negative result is not enough to guarantee the potentially lethal virus won’t spread to family and friends.
Anyone exposed to COVID19 too close to the time of a test might not show an active infection; people can become exposed after a test that later comes back negative; and a negative result doesn’t rule out potential for future infection, according to the Virginia Department of Health, which warns online that a negative result “should not be used as the sole basis for treatment or patient management decisions.”
Amid case surges and an imminent holiday, some private and public clinics offering testing report being overwhelmed. VDH testing sites continue statewide, but some in the Richmond area warn of a limited 50-test capacity.
On Tuesday, Patient First’s site did not list any available appointments before Thanksgiving in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania or New Jersey with the exception of one at 1:20 p.m. in Chesapeake, a 1:10 p.m. and 1:50 p.m. appointment in Annapolis, Md., and a scattered few in New Jersey.
Within a 45-mile radius from Richmond, no appointments were available at CVS testing locations, with the website attributing the lack of appointments to high demand. Better Med and Med Express sites were the same.
Result wait times vary between 48 hours and 10 days.
Richmond and Henrico Health Director Danny Avula said Friday he was not aware of testing shortages and delays but added that healthy people seeking rapid COVID-19 tests — formally known as antigen tests — are not the intended users of that product.
Avula said the tests are less sensitive than formal diagnostic tests, and could give people a sense of false security while making the tests more difficult to acquire for people with symptoms and a known exposure.
That was the case for Rusty Tutton, a 40-year-old in Richmond with a heart condition that could prove deadly if he became infected.
On Nov. 18, he began feeling lethargic and developed a sore throat and muscle aches. It was the first time during the pandemic that he’d experienced
He spent the afternoon calling AFC Urgent Care. Then Planned Parenthood. CVS. Walgreens. None had appointments until the following week, and some required him to get out of the car. He hadn’t been inside a public building for more than eight months.
Tutton found a last-minute slot for a rapid test on Thursday night. It took two hours to receive the result. On average, results take 15 minutes.
“It was absolute torture, just because of what it would mean for me if I were positive. Every time a nurse or a doctor would walk by, I wasn’t sure if they were coming to talk to me. My heart would just drop,” he said. “I seriously wanted to throw up for those two hours.”
Tutton tested negative. But while waiting, he said most of the conversations he overheard revolved around people needing COVID-19 tests. He hoped that, like him, they would stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday.
On Nov. 12, the American Clinical Laboratory Association — which represents major labs such as LabCorp— publicly warned that the testing surge could push labs past capacity and force them into supply shortages.
A week later, the same day the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines urging people to avoid travel, Prince William County’s health department said the increased testing demand caused several of the county’s free COVID testing sites to shut down after quickly reaching capacity. According to the release, the county conducts about 200 COVID tests each day.
On Nov. 14— a week and a half before Thanksgiving — Richmond saw 2,354 COVID-19 tests administered, the highest number recorded since the start of the pandemic in March, according to health department data. That same day, Henrico County also experienced a daily high: 2,181 tests administered. The seven-day average the week before for Henrico was 895 tests. For Richmond, it was 909.
These don’t include rapid tests, which in recent weeks have numbered in the hundreds across localities in the region.
Chesterfield Health District Director Alexander Samuel said the district has had to turn people away due to limited staff availability and demand surpassing 128% to 282% of testing site capacity.
Since Nov. 16, Chesterfield County’s community testing sites have conducted an average of 81 tests, more than 2.5 times the average at the start of November.
“Now is not the time to let our guard down,” Samuel said. “It is important now more than ever to follow recommendations that we know can protect our families and ourselves and slow down the spread of COVID-19.”
Statewide, the 80-plus age group has accounted for about half of deaths and only 5% of cases. When combined, Chesterfield, Henrico, Richmond and Chickahominy, a health district that includes Hanover County, have more than 27,000 COVID-19 cases and 551 deaths. Of those deaths, 46% have been people age 80 or older.
Black people across the region who contracted COVID-19 died at disproportionate rates, in keeping with a statewide and national trend.
Henrico and Chesterfield Health Districts remain in the top five for most COVID tests administered in the state, with Henrico rivaling only Fairfax — which has nearly 3.5 times its population — and Prince William, which has 1.4 times Henrico’s resident count. Richmond is 10th in the state.
As health officials brace for a post-holiday spike, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which has produced COVID-19 projections throughout the pandemic, estimates 36 people will die every day from the virus in Virginia by Christmas.
If public restrictions ease, the projection of daily deaths could climb to 56 by the beginning of March.
As she eyed the numbers, Richmond resident Carson McNamara debated asking her family, who live in the city, to leave a Thanksgiving plate at her door. She returned two weeks ago from a hiking trip in West Texas, an area seeing soaring cases.
With the exception of one masked trip to the grocery store and the CVS drive-thru for a COVID-19 test, which took her more than three days to find, she hasn’t left the house. On Sunday, McNamara, 25, tested negative, but she knows there’s still a risk.
“Maybe we could eat on the back porch. Maybe I could be there for a reduced number of hours and we can all wear masks,” McNamara said. “Maybe that would make me feel safe enough to go, but it’s really scary. ... I might just not go.”
She doesn’t want to be the reason her grandmother gets sick.
To find nearby testing sites, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov/ coronavirus/covid-19-testing/ covid-19-testing-sites.