COVID-19 testing sites experiencing record demand after the holidays

COVID testing
Posted at 6:10 PM, Jan 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-10 17:58:44-05

DENVER — With the holidays wrapping up and people getting ready to head back to work or school, there have been long lines at many COVID-19 testing sites across the state.

Some people are waiting hours in line for the chance to get a test, while other testing sites are booked out for several days. Meanwhile, at-home COVID-19 tests are becoming increasingly difficult to come by, with many stores completely out of stock.

Supply and Demand

For the nine CareNow Urgent Care locations in the Denver metro area, testing slowed down significantly before the holidays. Looking back, Dr. Mark Montano, medical director for CareNow Urgent Care, now calls it the calm before the storm.

“What we found is the week of Christmas was when we really noticed a significant spike in testing demand, but also in test positivity,” Dr. Montano said. “With omicron being so contagious ... we are just seeing that explosion of test requests.”

His clinics are reporting anywhere from 20% to 45% positivity per clinic depending on the day. Along with more COVID-19 infections, the clinics are also seeing more cases of influenza and the common cold, which is standard this time of year.

Dr. Montano warns people to plan ahead and be prepared to not be tested on the day they want because thousands of other people are doing the same thing.

Last month, the Biden administration announced it was working on getting 500 million free at-home COVID-19 tests to Americans, but there is no indication as to when those tests might be made available to states. Even so, Dr. Montano says that’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of tests that are actually needed.

“We need many, many more than 500 million tests," he said. "That's just over one test for every citizen in the U.S., so that, that really is just a start. Hopefully, we'll get those and a lot more."

Record level of testing

On a larger scale, Chris Howk, community testing lead for the Tri-County Health Department, says they are hitting record levels for testing. Starting last week, demand increased to roughly 12,000 tests a day.

“We went from, maybe a week before Christmas, doing maybe 25% to 30% of our overall testing capacity, and within a week that went to 100% plus," Howk said. "We never imagined we would need that kind of step up that fast."

For the Tri-County Health Department, mitigating traffic posed the biggest challenge as demand ramped up, but they were able to receive help from community partners.

Even with the influx in tests, Howk says they’re still expecting a 48-hour turnaround time for the results to come in.

So, what’s with the long lines? Howk says it’s not necessarily the availability of tests that’s the issue.

“The vendors have tests that they need. Really the problem is staff,” he said. “A lot of places have the same trouble staffing that everyone else has.”

His best recommendation for anyone looking for a test is to pre-register, as well as try to make an appointment. Pre-registering can help speed up the testing process significantly since your information is already in the database and ready to go.

Statewide response

Statewide, Scott Bookman, COVID-19 incident commander with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, says the increase in demand for testing is a good thing because it means people are being cautious.

Across the state, CDPHE has seen a 32% increase in visits to testing sites over the last week alone. This coupled with a national shortage of rapid tests, the holidays and things like weather and the Boulder fires forcing some community sites to close have driven the long lines.

“It has been a somewhat challenging week,” Bookman said. “We have never seen demand like this on the sites that we have.”

Most testing sites also experienced shorter hours or complete closures during the holidays.

Bookman says while the virus doesn’t take a holiday off, historically the state has seen big drop-offs in terms of demand for tests, so they were okay with closing some sites down for a couple of days.

The state has called in the National Guard to help run testing sites. More than 50 guard members have already been brought in, and another 75 are expected to arrive by the middle of the week.

For now, officials are encouraging people looking for tests to keep trying. They're also asking people who are sick or experiencing symptoms to quarantine until they are able to get tested.

Those who have not yet been vaccinated are urged to do so, and those who have received the two shots are urged to go get their booster.

Meanwhile, Josh Posner, senior director of operations with COVID Check Colorado, says people who are looking for tests might have better luck later in the week. He is seeing more availability starting Wednesday and running through the following week. If you do need an urgent test, walk-up appointments are still available, but be prepared to wait in long lines.

As for turnaround times, Posner says he has seen a slight increase in the number of days it takes to get a result, but he insists supply is not a problem.

“We were experiencing longer turnaround times over the holiday season. So, folks who got tested Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week with us, we have set the expectations about three to five days, which is longer than what we're accustomed to,” he said.

Posner expects those testing time to return to the normal two-day wait period soon.

The bottom line for someone looking to get tested is to be patient but persistent in your pursuit.