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Expansion of Pinellas coronavirus testing off to rough start

No-cost testing for all who want it in Pinellas County proved easier said than done this week, while Hillsborough County smoothed out the bumps it ran into last week.

The idea to provide COVID-19 testing to all who want it in the Tampa Bay area is continuing to prove easier said than done.

Problems have been ironed out in Hillsborough County, where a scheduling system was overwhelmed with phone calls last week after officials announced anyone could be tested. But similar issues popped up in Pinellas County this week, after the county opened three public, no-cost testing sites on Monday.

Community Health Centers of Pinellas originally said it would take walk-ins and drive-ups at its sites in Clearwater, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, though it recommended making an appointment by phone or online. By Wednesday morning, though, it posted online that all appointments were booked up. And on Wednesday afternoon it tweeted that it would no longer accept walk-ins or drive-ups.

On social media and in interviews, Pinellas residents complained of long waits, confusing phone systems, inconsistent information and confused staff.

Kira Barrera, a 37-year-old St. Petersburg resident, said she tried to call the centers first thing Tuesday morning to make an appointment to get tested. It felt like the smart choice, she said — as the state begins to reopen, she wanted to know her status before she went around others.

Related: Pinellas County to offer no-cost, no-symptom COVID-19 testing

The first time she tried calling, she said, the phone system dropped her. The second time, she was put on hold for 20 or 30 minutes before an automated message told her she was 19th in line to make an appointment. The message gave her the option to get a call-back when it was her turn. She never heard anything.

That afternoon, she tried calling again and was directed to a real person — but that person could only direct her to the centers’ website. Though the website’s drive-thru testing page directs users to schedule a test by “requesting an appointment HERE,” the page doesn’t actually link to anything. Its “Appointment” page says it’s not taking appointment requests online and tells users to dial the phone number Barrera had been trying all day.

“It’s hard when you make up your mind to be proactive and do the right thing and then you can’t," Barrera said.

Thomas Christopher, a 67-year-old Clearwater man who went to get tested without an appointment Tuesday, said he waited nearly three hours in his car before being tested — despite showing up before the Clearwater center opened.

He said staff there seemed confused, asking him repeatedly for basic information such as his name and phone number. He was confused that he had to give his insurance information despite the test being no-cost, he said, and staff told him he wasn’t allowed to use the restroom inside the building while he waited. He said he sat in his car with the windows down until he was finally waved through the testing line.

Related: DeSantis says Florida has enough testing. Healthcare experts disagree.

“I thought this was just gonna be a little — you pull up, fill out a small form … and they swab you and send you on your way," he said. “They were totally unorganized.”

Community Health Centers of Pinellas did not respond to multiple request for comment, which were made both directly and through a Pinellas County spokesman.

Mark Thompson prepares to administer a COVID-19 swab test Wednesday at a testing site on Druid Road in Clearwater operated by Community Health Centers of Pinellas. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

County Commission Chair Pat Gerard said Community Health Centers was overwhelmed Tuesday and the phone system crashed. Commissioner Charlie Justice said there were not enough personnel to perform all the tests yesterday because of the high demand.

“There have been some bumps in the road, I think just because the demand has been so high that maybe CHC underestimated the demand," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, who has pushed for expanded testing.

Public information on the testing sites was also inconsistent. Community Health Centers continued to reference online reservations on social media even though it apparently wasn’t possible to make an appointment online. Though it announced on social media that it would stop taking walk-ins for the tests, it still hadn’t updated its website to say so hours after.

Organizers also issued conflicting information about the turnaround time for the tests. Community Health Centers told people in Facebook comments that test results would take two to four days to come back, while the Pinellas County Government page said they’d take 24 to 48 hours. Christopher said he was told at the time of his test that results would take five days.

Despite the problems, Welch said he expects Community Health Centers to smooth things out soon, and he wants to see a continued expansion of accessible testing across the county.

It reflects what experts have said is a need for more testing, especially as Florida begins to reopen. Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of University of South Florida’s College of Medicine, said last week that Florida needs to test at least 150 people for every 100,000 residents every day. That’s about 33,000 people per day statewide. As of Wednesday, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Florida ranked 23rd among states in tests per capita.

In Hillsborough, numbers at community drive-thru sites have more than tripled now that anyone can get tested.

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

The county averaged about 300 tests a day for the first month at its Raymond James stadium test site. Now, the county has the capacity to test 800 to 900 people per day among its four sites, including locations in Plant City, East Tampa and Ruskin.

Nearly 1,000 people were tested by the county Monday, and about 900 appointments were scheduled Wednesday, according to data provided by the county. All open slots for the rest of the week are booked, and the county is now taking appointments for next week, said Jon-Paul Lavandeira, executive manager for Hillsborough County Code Enforcement.

"We expected a surge, we got a surge, and that surge is continuing," Lavandeira said. "There has been no drop off we’ve noted at all."

He said the county has enough tests kits and protective equipment to sustain this rate long term.

Hillsborough initially struggled with high call volumes that overwhelmed its phone lines and prevented people from making appointments, but that issue was resolved, Lavandeira said.

"That was a big problem," Lavandeira said. "We shored that up. That is now a solid process. We have no issues on the call center front and no issues in the field, as far as resources."

As testing rates increase across the four sites, Lavandeira said they’ve also seen an increase in people walking or biking to a site, or qualifying for county officials to come test them in their homes. Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller had expressed concerns last month that officials were not doing enough to reach minorities and those without access to a car.

Lavandeira also said there is no reason for someone not to get tested. If they have any doubt in their mind, they should call and schedule an appointment. It's free and it won't take long.

“Right now we’re getting someone through in three and half minutes,” he said. “If someone thinks they’re going to come out here and spend half a day in a car line, that’s not the case.”

Medical professionals have tested about 10,000 people at the community sites since the first county drive-thru opened on March 25, according to county data.

Staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.

• • •

Getting tested

In Pinellas County, call (727) 824-8181, ext. 0

In Hillsborough County, call (813) 272-5900.

• • •

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