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Hillsborough wants to test everybody for COVID-19. Is that easier said than done?

County staff announced on Twitter that a surge in calls had led to issues with people connecting.
Cars are lined up in the parking lot outside of Raymond James Stadium Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Tampa. The city asked residents to pre-register for coronavirus testing before arriving at Raymond James Stadium.
Cars are lined up in the parking lot outside of Raymond James Stadium Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Tampa. The city asked residents to pre-register for coronavirus testing before arriving at Raymond James Stadium. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 28, 2020
Updated Apr. 28, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials announced Monday anyone who wanted to be tested for COVID-19 could be. But by Tuesday morning, the county phone number to schedule appointments was overwhelmed and unable to take calls.

Cindy Bagley, 66, said she called the county half a dozen times to schedule a coronavirus test, but the line was busy or dropped the call each time. An appointment is required before someone can go to a test site.

“It goes to hold music for a second and then disconnects,” Bagley said. “How is anyone supposed to make an appointment when this isn’t working?”

Earlier that morning, county officials told the Tampa Bay Times they had plenty of supplies and were ready for any increase in testing demand.

Related: Here's where to get tested for the coronavirus in Tampa Bay

“I can tell you we have a lot of unused capacity at these sites," said Jon-Paul Lavandeira, executive manager for Hillsborough County Code Enforcement. “I would anticipate that there’d be an uptick (in demand), and we have the cushion to handle that uptick.”

But at 8:46 a.m., county staff announced on Twitter that a surge in calls had led to issues with people connecting.

“We ask that you practice patience and try placing your call throughout the day,” another Hillsborough County tweet said. “Even with an additional phone line, the surge in calls created technical issues. We are sorry for the inconvenience and thank you for understanding.”

The issues continued throughout the day.

Logistics aside, county staff was bullish in its desire to make testing available for all, regardless if they had a cough or fever. The decision was made Monday after weeks of lower-than-expected turnout at the Raymond James drive-thru and other recently opened sites.

The county tested about 300 people per day on average at the stadium, according to data provided by staff. The three other community sites it opened last week in East Tampa, Ruskin and Plant City average about 75 tests per day so far.

Related: Hillsborough has the tests, now it needs people to get tested

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told a national audience Tuesday she’s confident that Hillsborough’s new testing protocol will help the county reopen safely.

“We’re trying to get anyone and everyone in our community tested,” Castor told MSNBC host Craig Melvin. “We’re starting the contact tracing. We’re also doing the syndromic surveillance, and we’re doing density risk as well so that we can map out those neighborhoods that may have a high incidence of positive tests and get the services down in there quickly."

Castor said if leaders make decisions to reopen based on those steps, "I think we’ll be okay.”

Lavandeira said the ability to test more people will give officials a better understanding of the prevalence and nature of the virus in Hillsborough County: key information to decide what to do next.

“The bigger your sample size, the more accurate your data is," Lavandeira said. “That’s kind of our driving force on this...By virtue of casting a wider net, it opens the playbook immensely.”

Related: St. Pete, Pinellas test for coronavirus in underserved communities

But other testing providers, like BayCare Health Systems, continue to test only people who show symptoms, like shortness of breath or a fever. BayCare has tested more than 18,000 people in Tampa Bay between its drive-thru sites and hospitals.

BayCare has used guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health to determine who to test, Dr. Nishant Anand, chief medical officer for BayCare Health System, said in a statement. The medical provider has also worked with government partners to test vulnerable populations, such as those in nursing homes.

“Generally, as testing supplies have been limited, we have ... focused our efforts on identifying those who are the greatest risk of carrying the disease, for example, those who were symptomatic,” Anand said. “As always, in medicine we continue to evaluate the evidence for best practices to do what is best for our community and our patients.”

The Department of Health in Pinellas operates two regular test sites and occasionally opens one-day pop-up sites in specific neighborhoods, said spokeswoman Maggie Hall.

In order to get tested at the mid-county office on Ulmerton Road in Largo or the downtown St. Petersburg site on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, people must first call 727-568-8028 and complete a screening interview, Hall said. The same is true of the pop-up sites, like one scheduled for Bartlett Park Saturday morning.

The health department is deciding on “a case by case basis” who to test, Hall said. That might include some people who don’t have symptoms, but it depends on the interview.

Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida, said at a press conference Monday with Gov. Ron DeSantis that Hillsborough should be testing 150 people per 100,000 per day in order to curtail the epidemic.

“That would give us enough information to understand the exposure in the county,” Lockwood said. “Right now, we’re doing about 500 tests a day, sometimes 750. And we have the capacity to do 4,000. We just need to test more people.”

Related: Eight weeks later, DeSantis returns to a changed Tampa Bay, stunted by COVID-19

Limited test supplies initially made officials reticent about who they tested and when. But now that the medical community has had time to develop test kits and fortify the supply chain, it’s allowed the state and other providers to test kits to the county a lot quicker, Lavandeira said.

“The supply chain isn’t the issue it was before, by any means,” he said.

The county has tested about 5,500 people to date at its four drive-thru sites.

The four sites are currently using kits that rely on a nasal swab to gather a specimen, Lavandeira said. But the county is dependent on whatever supplies the state and other medical providers send.

Officials are also awaiting a shipment of rapid tests that provide results in a matter of minutes, Lavandeira said. Those kits will be used to test first responders.

Times reporters Justine Griffin and Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

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