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In hot-spot states, those seeking tests for coronavirus meet long lines and delays

Emma Court, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

In Texas, which is quickly becoming the new U.S. epicenter, the strain from increasing testing demand was felt by hospitals, public health departments and patients alike. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said capacity at the Delmar and Butler stadium sites will be expanded by 30% starting Tuesday.

A line that started before 5 a.m. Sunday at an urgent care center in South Austin was compared to the wait for a wristband to Austin City Limits, the city's annual music festival, or the queue for barbecue at Franklin's, which would draw dozens customers to its doors before sunrise.

Kaitlin Heikes, a 26-year-old San Antonio resident, had to drive 45 minutes to Spring Branch for a rapid test. She made an appointment on Sunday for the following day after she didn't have any luck on Friday or Saturday.

At the Houston Methodist hospital system, demand for testing doubled over the last week or so, David Bernard, medical director of clinical pathology, said in a Friday interview. The lab has faced an uphill battle securing supplies, and equipment is needed after diagnostics companies initially prioritized early hot spots like New York.

"We've been stretched," Bernard said. Test manufacturers "don't give you as much as you want, and it's been a struggle. We've had to work as hard as we can to get things done."

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Harris County, home to sprawling Houston, which for a time had been able to meet demand, said Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health.

"We're doing everything we can to meet or increase capacity," Shah said in an interview. "But it is not enough right now."

A local Texas health department was still receiving test results by fax as recently as last week, slowing them down further, said David Lakey, UT System's vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer and the former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

 

"If we had today 6,400 new cases and you have that kind of volume each day, there isn't possibly a way for the staff of the local health departments" to do contact tracing, he said. "They are getting overwhelmed right now."

California has experienced delays too. Barbara Ferrer, who directs Los Angeles County's health department, said in an interview that some testing centers can take a week to report results, also creating problems for contact tracing. At that point, those who test positive will have had days to go around infecting more people before the county can talk to them and the people around them, Ferrer said.

In Florida, hundreds of cars have been lining up at test centers. Health officials said wait times could be up to four hours on Monday at the Hard Rock Stadium site serving the Miami metropolitan area, and the Orange County Convention Center site in Central Florida had waits of about five hours. In St. Petersburg, local police said a site at Tropicana Field ran out of tests only about an hour due to "overwhelming turnout."

"The testing capacity is disappointing," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wrote in a tweet. "We are working with the state to bring additional, expanded testing."

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