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‘An explosion of testing’ causing delays for coronavirus tests in the Tampa Bay area

Not only has the daily number of tests conducted increased throughout June, but people are reporting longer wait times in drive-thru lines and while waiting on hold to schedule appointments.
A local St. Petersburg resident gets tested for COVID-19 testing during a free drive-up and walk-up testing site coordinated by the Florida Department of Health Pinellas County on Saturday May 2, 2020 at the Frank H Pierce Recreation Center at Bartlett Park.
A local St. Petersburg resident gets tested for COVID-19 testing during a free drive-up and walk-up testing site coordinated by the Florida Department of Health Pinellas County on Saturday May 2, 2020 at the Frank H Pierce Recreation Center at Bartlett Park. [ Boyzell Hosey ]
Published Jun. 22, 2020

Finding out if you have contracted COVID-19 is getting more complicated in Tampa Bay as demand for testing rises along with the number of cases statewide.

Test providers across the region have reported a surge in people getting tested for the novel coronavirus in the past couple weeks. Not only has the daily number of tests conducted increased throughout June, but people are reporting longer wait times in drive-thru lines and while waiting on hold to schedule appointments. It’s also led to one test site closing after growing demand led to disruptions for neighboring businesses.

“We are seeing a surge in demand in testing at all of our drive-thru sites,” said Nishant Anand, the chief medical officer for BayCare Health Systems, which operates test sites in Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.

BayCare officials decided Monday to close its Pinellas site at Carillon due to the demand tripling in the past week, leading to long car lines that wound through the parking lot of other businesses. The healthcare provider plans to open another Pinellas site later this week.

BayCare’s testing across all of its sites more than doubled from the second week of June to the third. Nearly 900 people were tested at the three county sites from June 15 to Friday, up from 380 the week before.

Daily testing across all providers in Hillsborough rose from about 1,200 per day the first week of June to 1,900 tests per day the second week, Dr. Charles Lockwood, the dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine, told county leaders Monday. Then that number climbed to about 2,400 tests per day.

“We’ve had an explosion of testing,” Lockwood told the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group.

But now people who are eager to learn whether or not they’ve contracted the virus are experiencing delays. Most places require appointments, which can be booked out days in advance.

Hillsborough Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Dudley told county leaders around 2 p.m. Monday that about 3,000 appointments were already booked. The county has the capacity to test 4,550 across seven sites each week. By end of day, 112 appointments were available. All but two were at the Ruskin testing site.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said she has been hearing complaints that people can’t get through to schedule testing appointments. Dudley told the policy group that the average wait is about 33 minutes, citing high demand.

“Just continue to call and we’ll get you in just as soon as we can,” he said. He added that the county is hoping to have an online registration system available soon.

People in Pinellas reported waiting two to three hours in line at both the St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park Community Health Centers Monday.

Despite the increases, testing providers such as BayCare Health and Hillsborough County said they have enough test kits to meet the current demand and are not seeing significant challenges with their supply chains.

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Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said the testing sites are facing more pressure as demand rises and are going to get assistance from the state to make sure the testing rate can continue. That includes more supplies and additional staffing.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said the increase in testing is behind the increase in cases statewide. Florida has reported more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases every day since June 13, with the exception of one. Saturday set a daily record with 4,049 cases reported throughout the state.

But Anand, Lockwood and other medical experts Monday said the increase in testing is only part of the story behind the spike in cases. They pointed to an increase in hospitalizations and a decrease in the average age of patients as the number of people infected who are between 18 and 35 years old continues to rise.

“We can conclude there’s been an increase in cases due to both more testing, but more recently due to the rapid spread of the infection among younger folks,” Lockwood said. “That’s really not at all, I think, in dispute.”

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