Virus testing shortages and delays help fuel surge
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Very long lines and hours of waiting at COVID 19 testing centers have prompted the state to bring in help from the California national guard and changed San Diego county's testing guidance county, public health officer Dr. Wilma Wooton is now urging people to get tested only as necessary defined as only when you have of symptoms. State testing sites from Chula Vista to Oceanside are getting help from some national guard medical personnel. Meanwhile, doctors are concerned that symptomatic and asymptomatic people waiting together in long lines for COVID tests could actually be helping to spread the disease. Joining me is San Diego union Tribune, healthcare reporter, Paul Sissen and Paul welcome.
Speaker 2: (00:43)
Thanks for having me.
Speaker 1: (00:45)
How long have the COVID test lines been around the county in recent days? How long have people been on those lines?
Speaker 2: (00:51)
Oh gosh. You know, we don't have a perfect figure for every single site, but the ones that we visited and others have visited and people have been telling us about it, you know, it's not uncommon to, for hours to get tested. Uh, you know, I had some people, uh, say that they, they went to private sites, uh, last week where they waited in their cars for four straight hours before their samples were taken. So it's a long haul out there
Speaker 1: (01:12)
For sure. And people on those lines are getting tested for a variety of different reasons, not just because they think they might be sick. Isn't that right? If you
Speaker 2: (01:21)
Go through and you talk to people who are waiting in these lines, you just find a really wide range of different, uh, reasons why they're there. You know, obviously there are some who have symptoms and wanna find out what's causing those symptoms, but then you run into other people who say, you know, I, I don't have any symptoms and I'm not aware that I've been exposed, but my boss told me to get tested before I come back to work. So I'm out here, uh, just trying to, you know, get a negative so I can do my job. Uh, you know, we ended some folks, uh, in San Marcos last week who were in that boat and they worked in retail. So it seems like, uh, you know, it's a, it's a wide range of different reasons. Now, the
Speaker 1: (01:53)
Concern, as I understand it is that sick people online could pose a risk to people who are just there because they need a test for work. Is that
Speaker 2: (02:01)
It, this was brought up up by, uh, Dr. Schooly at U C S D uh, when I chatted with him on Friday, I think he has a point there in terms of, you know, you don't really wanna be in close proximity with people who are infected, even if everybody is wearing masks for, uh, for too long, standing next to somebody like that for, for four hours or two hours or three hours or one hour, that's probably not super ideal. The other hand, a lot of these lines are outside and we know that there's much less risk when you are outside. On the other other hand, we know that this, uh, Amron variant is, uh, highly, highly transmissible, more so than others that came before it. So I guess what the, what the infectious disease folks are saying is, you know, why take the chance?
Speaker 1: (02:41)
One are San Diego county health officials saying now about who should get tested.
Speaker 2: (02:46)
They seem to be narrowing it down a bit. The message as we were coming into this current surge was, you know, everybody should get tested whenever they want to, and whenever they need to. And, and that's, uh, that's a great thing to be able to do. It's great if somebody is going out to a social function of some kind, you know, and, and they think they might have been exposed, or they just wanna be careful before visiting a, a loved run. Who's, uh, very vulnerable to just take a, take a home test or, or go to a testing center and, and get a result and confirm that their social interaction is not going to bring coronavirus along with it. It just seems like that kind kind of testing. It seems like the county is straying away from that a little bit at this point. And focusing more in, on people either who have symptoms or who have pretty severe symptoms. And it, it seems to me though, they haven't really explained why they're doing this. Uh, it seems that the overall problem is just a lack of testing in general, available tests and, and so many long lines at to testing centers. So much demand.
Speaker 1: (03:40)
How is the national guard helping out at San Diego COVID testing centers?
Speaker 2: (03:44)
We were able to get ahold of, uh, gentlemen with the, uh, national guard over the weekend. He indicated that it's generally helping around the edges. Yeah. As you know, the national guard is made up of a lot of folks, men and women who have a lot of different skills. And so they were saying, you know, it's tailored by site. So in some cases they might have a medic there who's helping to do, uh, swabs and, and taking samples for testing. Uh, others might be helping to run traffic and parking lots and, and keep things from clogging up. As people are pulling in, in their vehicles, uh, others might be helping to manage long lines and make sure that people aren't getting frustrated in and trying to cut the lines or what have you. Uh, and then others might be working kind of behind the scenes with some of the lab operations and, uh, logistics. Once they take these samples at a testing site, often they'll need to transport them elsewhere for the actual testing to be conducted. So there's a lot of logistics behind the scenes that people don't see that, that are important, uh, as well.
Speaker 1: (04:37)
And Paul are the numbers still in the thousands for people to testing positive for COVID every day in San Diego?
Speaker 2: (04:43)
Uh, yes, they absolutely are. Uh, the county doesn't give us, uh, new data updates over the weekend, so we should get a fresh set of numbers later today. But their last, uh, report Friday had 5,922 new cases from the previous day that they had been, uh, reported. And that is still higher than any thing we saw last winter. And that's still over a thousand more than we saw last this time, last winter, when, when that was the record and
Speaker 1: (05:08)
In your article in the UT today, it seems that some doctors are urging people to consider going back into lockdown. Can you tell us about that?
Speaker 2: (05:17)
Yeah, I mean, you know, they look at all of this, uh, social interaction that happened over the holidays. Uh, as we talked before, you know, it was just very different this year. A, a lot of locations were open that weren't open last year, bars and restaurants and indoor dining and lots of different performances and large gatherings, uh, football games, uh, you know, you name it, it was open. And so they see the, the spike in positive cases. That's come after all of that, uh, holiday revel and, and, and kind of wonder if we can continue that kind of, uh, level of activity if we want this thing to simmer down. You know, I don't think anybody's really suggesting that it's even possible to have the wide shutdowns that we had in 2020 and, and early 2021. I think, think a lot of people feel that that ship has really sailed, that people really wouldn't comply. So, so it feels like they're being a little more nuanced and saying, you know, we all in our own, uh, behaviors need to kind of ratchet back on some of this contact that we've been having over the holidays and let this thing simmer down, kind of as a, a collective effort. That's not really a formal government effort, but just into visuals making, uh, you know, a tighter set of choices as, as we get into the new new year here and try to try to get this case right down. I've
Speaker 1: (06:24)
Been speaking with San Diego union Tribune, healthcare reporter, Paul Sissen, Paul. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
The difficulty finding coronavirus test kits in many parts of California and delays in getting results are causing increasing frustration and contributing to the surge of infections that in just two weeks more than doubled the number of people in hospitals with COVID-19.
Negative test results can be a necessity for any number of activities, from going to work to boarding an airplane or attending a sporting event. Delays in getting results — or inability to find a test kit — can mean people with very mild or no symptoms may presume they are not infected and go about their usual routines.
“If you are tested and you’re positive then you know you need to isolate," said Abraar Karan, an infectious diseases doctor at Stanford University. “If you can’t get tested, and you don’t have the luxury to just quarantine without knowing, sure, you may have people going out and infecting others."
The surge of cases in California has led to a soaring demand for tests that in many places simply can’t be found. Some county mail-in testing programs have been halted due to exploding demand. In places where tests are available, people sometimes have to wait in line for several hours.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that he is activating the California National Guard to add testing sites and boost capacity. More than 200 guard members are being deployed to 50 sites to help with clinical staffing and crowd control, the governor said.
There's also been a lag in obtaining test results. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an epidemiology professor at University of California, San Francisco’s medical school, said she heard one lab was taking nine days to return results — longer than someone exposed to COVID-19 may have to quarantine.
“If you are trying to do the right thing, and you decided to wait in line to get a test, having a long time to get actionable information is not helpful,” she said. “It’s sort of absurd.”
Some people have resorted to paying $100 or more for a rapid result — something many can’t afford.
Shane Hirschman, a 36-year-old from San Clemente, said he ordered a mail-in test kit from the Orange County health agency last week but never received one. When he started feeling sick this week, he said he couldn’t find an at-home kit in stores and testing appointments at nearby pharmacies were booked. He wound up paying nearly $100 for a rapid test to confirm he didn’t have the variant.
“They’ve had a year and a half to sort this out and it shouldn’t be like this,” he said. “I don’t feel like I can pay 100 bucks every day.”
In Los Angeles County, where a quarter of the state's nearly 40 million people live, overwhelming demand prompted a temporary halt to a program that allowed people to test at home and mail back their sample. Public health director Barbara Ferrer said she hopes the testing crunch will ease in coming days. In the meantime, she urged restraint.
“Please don’t decide that because you didn’t get tested, you don’t have COVID and you don’t have to stay home if you’ve got symptoms," she said. “We do ask while we’re trying to increase testing capacity and make it much easier for everyone who need to test to get a test that you please stay home while you’re symptomatic."
California, like the rest of the country, has been overtaken by the omicron variant, which spreads more easily than other coronavirus strains. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus, though it appears less likely to cause severe illness.
Since Christmas, more than 5,000 people in California have been admitted to hospitals with COVID. In many cases, they went in for something else and only learned they were infected upon testing.
State models used to forecast the impact of the virus show that within a month California could have a record 23,000 people in hospitals with COVID-19.
Orange County, the state's third most populous with more than 3 million residents, is among a growing number of places where hospitals are becoming strained by the flood of COVID patients coupled with a high number of nurses and other workers who are not on the job because they are infected or quarantined due to exposure to the virus.
Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer, said many hospitals have resorted to using tents to triage patients, something not seen since a year ago when the state was in the throes of its deadliest surge. Ambulances are waiting nearly an hour to drop off patients.
“It is a dire situation right now,” she said.