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TAMPA — Dozens of cars stretched down Himes Avenue, occupants waiting in the shadow of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stadium to learn whether or not they’ve contracted the virus that’s encircled the world.
Hillsborough County officials opened a new test site Wednesday morning in hopes of getting a better handle on how many people are infected locally with COVID-19. But supplies are limited, and the county can only afford to test those who meet strict criteria.
The county has tried to get the message out that testing at Raymond James Stadium is only available to those who are symptomatic, meet other state and national guidelines and have called ahead to get prescreened by a medical professional.
Still, others woke up this morning and slid into the driver’s seat, hoping they could dodge requirements and get tested by one of the 900 swabs the state shared with Hillsborough County. Instead, they were turned away.
Nearly 1,100 people called the county’s screening line Tuesday, Hillsborough County Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Dudley told officials Wednesday afternoon. Of those, 113 met testing criteria and scheduled an appointment.
John-Paul Lavandeira, executive manager for Hillsborough County Code Enforcement, said he’d “bet the farm” that some of the cars waiting alongside Himes Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway to enter the remote testing site included people who did not receive approval.
“We don’t need somebody waddling up to here just expecting us to swab them onsite,” Lavandeira said. “I can see that being a significant number. It’s just the way people are.”
When the site closed for the day at 2 p.m., 188 people had been tested, Dudley said. An additional 80 people were turned away because they did not meet requirements.
One struggle in stopping the spread of the respiratory virus has been getting a handle on how many people are infected. A shortage of test kits and medical information has stymied efforts. But officials are hoping the opening of the Raymond James test site, along with other offerings from local medical providers, will help.
BayCare Health Systems alone had tested more than 4,220 people in Tampa Bay in the past week, according to numbers released Tuesday.
For those who did qualify for testing at Raymond James, the process looked similar to drive-thru efforts set up by BayCare and other medical providers in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.
Cars weaved through Disney-style switchback lines, stopping at multiple tents to confirm they qualified for testing. Healthcare workers jotted down demographic information and waved drivers on to one of three tents where medical professionals in blue gowns and standard surgical masks waited to conduct the test.
A swab was placed in each person’s nose to collect a sample, similar to a flu test. The feeling is said to be mildly irritating, but not invasive or painful. Only the nose was swabbed; nothing was placed down the throat.
Each professional wore gloves and a clear face shield to protect against a patient who might sneeze or cough. Once the sample was secured, the gloves were tossed, new ones donned and the process repeated with the next car.
Patients were told to expect their results in 5 to 7 days. But labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp appear to be inundated with samples, and some people who were tested last week said they are still awaiting results.
“I haven’t heard a word," said Kevin Deeb, 64, of Pinellas Point. “They told me it would be like three days. I thought they forgot about me.”
Deeb went to a BayCare test site last week after returning from a trip to New York where he and some friends attended a concert at Madison Square Gardens on March 10 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band.
“I was coughing and everything,” Deeb said. “I’m thinking now it was pollen or hay fever, but I just figured I’d be safe and get tested. But what about people who might be sick and still haven’t heard anything?”
Individuals who get tested at Raymond James are given information to create an online account with Quest Diagnostics where they can view their results, said Adam Smith, senior vice president of Tampa General Hospital. For now, Smith said staff is focusing on calling individuals who tested positive.
“The thing is, if you’ve been screened and you’re technically at risk ... when you leave, you should be self-quarantining, regardless if you’re positive or negative, until you get those results,” Smith said. “Your follow-up instructions really don’t change based on your results.”
BayCare spokeswoman Vjollca Hysenlika said patients screened at their sites do not have access to an online portal at this time. Instead, they should await a phone call for their results, whether positive or negative.
“People are getting anxious wanting to know the results," Hysenlika said. "Of course, I can imagine how stressful that may be.”
Raymond James Stadium test site
Raymond James Stadium, 4201 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
Hillsborough County officials will open this site at 8 a.m. daily through Saturday, or until testing supplies run out. If the county does not receive more tests and protective gear, it will close after exhausting its supply of 900 swabs.
- You must call the county’s main information line at (813) 272-5900 to complete a virtual screening ahead of time. Only patients who meet certain criteria and receive a confirmation email will be authorized to go to the Raymond James site. “You can’t just drive up,” County Administrator Mike Merrill said. The test will be free, Merrill said. “We’re not concerned about cost at this time,” he said. “We’ve made arrangements for the county to take care of the cost and track the billing for reimbursement. We don’t want the drive-thru process to get bogged down.”
Correction: According to Hillsborough health officials, 188 people were tested for coronavirus at Raymond James Stadium Wednesday. A story Wednesday gave an incorrect number.
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