HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. -- Major labs are gearing up to increase capacity for COVID-19 testing as cases surge nationwide, and health departments in Tampa Bay are also working to meet that demand.
1. Are local health departments offering COVID-19 testing?
Months after many counties closed testing sites, plans are in the works in both Hillsborough and Hernando Counties to begin testing again. Hillsborough will open two free, walk-in sites this weekend.
"As cases start to increase, we know that a lot of people were having a longer wait time, and they really were anxious to get tested," said Kevin Watler, public information officer with the Florida Dept. of Health in Hillsborough County. "So, we've worked with the Hillsborough County government to be able to turn back on a couple testing sites throughout the county."
Water said right now, testing is primarily happening at commercial pharmacies, urgent cares, and hospitals. He said the wait time is anywhere from zero to three days to schedule a test, and this is one more resource to make testing easier.
FLDOH - Hernando PIO Ashley Thomas said the team in that county is finalizing details for a central location for a testing site and a vendor that can handle demand.
In Manatee County, the health dept. along with the Florida Division of Emergency Management is already offering a combination testing/vaccination site at the Palmetto Bus Station.
2. How can I find a testing site near me?
FLDOH - Pinellas has a list of testing locations that can be found here. In addition to the county sites opening this weekend, FLDOH has been steering people toward testing options like CVS, Quest, and Walgreens.
3. Are commercial labs prepared to handle the increased demand?
Quest Diagnostics spokesperson Kimberly Gorode said that chain has the capacity to perform 300,000 COVID-19 molecular diagnostic tests a day across its two dozen U.S. laboratories.
Still, the lab announced this week it's looking at ways to increase capacity to meet demand if cases and positivity continue to surge. Gorode said people can get same day or next day appointments in many cases, with result turnaround in one day.
CVS Pharmacy Retail Communications Manager Matt Blanchette told Spectrum Bay News 9 the chain is also prepared to meet the demand for tests, with 4,800 CVS Pharmacy locations nationwide offering tests, 1,000 of which also provide rapid result tests. He said no one should have any out-of-pocket cost for testing, whether or not they're insured.
"The good news is that we certainly have better access to testing, both the PCR testing, the antigen testing, and some communities are now beginning to even do the at-home test - not available everywhere. So, testing in general should not be a problem," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, about the nationwide increase in demand.
4. What is testing telling us?
According to FLDOH's situation report for the week of July 23-29, the positivity rate for new cases in Florida was just more than 18 percent. Dr. Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health, said it was just weeks ago the positivity rate was a little more than three percent. Salemi said positivity rate is a blend of case numbers and how many people are being tested.
"Positivity is a consequence of a lot of factors -- you know, if a lot of people aren't being routinely tested for their job, and maybe people are only going to get tested when they're developing symptoms," said Salemi. "There are a lot of things that will drive test positivity up, but right now, when you put the increases in test positivity in combination with all of these other metrics, including hospitalizations, it just demonstrates how much the delta variant is transmitting through our community and causing a lot of damage."
5. A common message?
Everyone interviewed or contacted by Spectrum Bay News 9 for this story said that while testing is a useful tool in the fight against the pandemic, vaccination is still the single best way people can protect themselves and those around them.
"The most important thing that people need to be doing is getting vaccinated," said Watler. "We still have just about every other individual out there who is not yet vaccinated, and we know if they are vaccinated, it's a very, very low chance of them ending up in the hospital."