ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Another coronavirus surge is in full swing as Americans across the country scramble to get tested.

Skyrocketing infection rates have reignited the conversation around COVID-19 tests, how to get them and which ones work best.

National pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens have been slammed with appointments, and the latter has limited the number of rapid tests each buyer can purchase.

What You Need To Know

  • The daily average of coronavirus cases in the U.S. has hit a record high of about 267,000 a day

  • The omicron variant, a highly contagious but generally less potent version of COVID-19, is the main culprit for the winter bump

  • Consumers have flocked to the internet and brick and mortar stores to purchase rapid tests, which officials say are generally less sensitive in detecting the virus

  • Deaths from COVID-19 have surpassed 800,000 in the U.S.

But in-person PCR tests remain more effective, and Orange County officials are trying to get more people to take them. Officials say there’s plenty of testing to go around at locations used for vaccinations like the Orange County fairgrounds.

“People don’t realize all the places you can get tested so they’re waiting in line for four hours unnecessarily,” said Second District County Supervisor Katrina Foley.

There, people can get tested by simply sending a text, then following a link to the appointment time for the test. 

Some officials have also been frustrated by the COVID fatigue many have experienced during the now ever-lengthening pandemic.

“If you’re sick, don’t go hang out with people. I don’t understand why people are doing that,” Foley said.

Omicron, thus far, has distinguished itself in several ways. Officials say it’s more contagious than the delta variant, but symptoms tend to be less severe. And the virus doesn’t take as long to cause symptoms in people.

But Andrew Noymer, a University of Irvine, California professor and epidemiologist said it can still cause significant problems. He expects the sheer number of people infected to force overcrowding in hospitals even though it tends to be less severe.

That means, he said, that people need to continue to observe local protocols and get tested. But whether testing helps or not depends on the kind of test people take and how long it takes to get it.

While rapid tests have been far harder to come by in recent days, they’re also less effective.

Noymer said that while these rapid tests may be less sensitive, the silver lining may be fewer positive results won’t detect trace amounts of the virus when people likely aren’t contagious anyway.

But he called that “making a virtue of necessity” and insisted that infection rates will never fall precipitously because of rapid tests. The best way, he said, are the in-person tests paired with vaccines and boosters. Especially when it can take days to get an appointment.

“The wait times for PCR tests are unacceptable. We need to do better than that. We’ve had all pandemic to prepare for this winter,” Noymer said.

Coronavirus rates have hit a record high, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, with more than 267,000 new cases a day in the United States. Mask mandates for indoor gatherings have sprung up again, thousands of flights have been canceled worldwide and athletic organizations like the NBA are fighting through rampant illness of players.

To help keep people working, the CDC has reduced the suggested quarantine period for people with positive COVID-19 tests. The guidelines now encourage people to stay isolated for five days instead of 10.

While vaccines and booster shots remain at the center of the coronavirus prevention strategy, tests have become increasingly important during these winter months.

Foley said her office has a spreadsheet with numerous locations that her staff is prepping to distribute. Her hope is to get the county to send out a mass text message, like it has for recent floods, informing residents where tests are readily available. 

“We have to make it easier for everyone to find testing,” Foley said.