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Q&A on COVID-19 testing: long lines, far-off appointments and delays in results

Here’s what else you need to know about coronavirus testing in the Tampa Bay region.

The Tampa Bay area continues to expand its coronavirus testing capacity, but local providers are still seeing long lines and booking appointments a week or two out.

Cases spiked in Tampa Bay and Florida throughout much of June, with the state tallying nearly 100,000 new cases in the past month. In the past 16 days, at least 2,000 cases have been reported in Florida each day. More than 10,000 cases were reported Thursday.

Related: Here’s where to get tested for COVID-19 in the Tampa Bay area

“The demand has gone off the chart because so many people are now seeing and hearing how serious this issue is, how serious this virus is, and they want to get a test,” Hillsborough County Commission chairman Les Miller said. “Tell the people of Hillsborough County we’re getting there.”

More than half a dozen providers offer drive-thru COVID-19 testing in Tampa Bay. Some sites are supported by the state and county governments, others by healthcare systems like BayCare and by private entities like CVS Health.

Elected officials have called for more to be done as residents complain about long lines, far-off appointments and delays in test results.

“We’re all working extremely hard to meet increasing needs in the community,” BayCare’s chief medical officer Dr. Nishant Anand said. “We’ll continue to work towards that. I think the technology and testing will improve and allow us to test more people.”

Pinellas County officials are counting on a new state-supported site to open next week at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. Hillsborough County has plans for an additional site in Town ‘N Country.

Here’s what else you need to know about coronavirus testing in the region.

What is the current state of testing in Tampa Bay?

The area has more testing capability than it did when COVID-19 cases first appeared in Florida in March, Anand said. While the number of people who can get tested has increased significantly, so has the demand.

The good news is that officials are no longer as concerned about supplies like test kits and personal protection equipment. But now staffing has limited the response. Hillsborough Emergency Coordinator Tim Dudley said the county needs more licensed professionals to conduct the tests.

“They are working in very hot conditions in multiple layers of personal protective equipment,” Dudley said. “We are currently making testing appointments for as many people as our nursing staff can test in a shift, but we are exploring additional options to increase our capacity.”

What does it cost? Will my insurance be billed?

This depends on where you go. People are encouraged to check the details for the test site they select and call their insurance provider for clarification.

All tests at Hillsborough County sites are free, and no insurance will be billed, even if it’s your second or third test, Fire Chief Dennis Jones said. Similarly, the Pinellas Department of Health does not ask people for insurance.

BayCare’s three drive-thru sites collect insurance information. For patients without insurance, the cost of the COVID-19 lab test is $85. Payment is not due at testing. BayCare is working with government agencies to secure funding for patients who are unable to pay.

CVS Health, which offers self-swab tests at 27 stores in the area, markets its tests as free, but also suggests that patients check with their health plan to confirm before scheduling a test.

The bottom line: Ask ahead if the provider is collecting insurance information. If so, call your company to see if the test is covered.

What are turnaround times for results?

This is another scenario where the answer changes based on where you’re tested. CVS Health advertises two to three days. BayCare is saying three to five days. Pinellas Department of Health said five to seven days. Hillsborough County tells people it could take 10 days. But none of these are guarantees. People in Hillsborough are reporting results closer to five days out, while other sites could take longer than advertised.

Testing conducted in hospitals can take 15 minutes or a couple hours.

Why is it so hard to know when results will come back?

The delay in turnaround times is a mix of factors. Processing the test takes anywhere from minutes to 10 hours. But sometimes it takes longer to transport the specimen to outside labs. The ability of those labs to process results changes based on demand. And then, once an agency has results back, it needs staff to call and notify people.

BayCare was using in-house laboratories to process results, a quicker turnaround than outside laboratories like Quest Diagnostics. But BayCare officials said the priority is those patients who need answers to get medical care. As demand increases, BayCare has shifted its drive-thru tests back to commercial laboratories.

Why aren’t more rapid-test options available?

There are tests out there that take far less time to process, but, for the most part, these are not available to the public. One reason is they’re not as reliable. Another is because they’re reserved for those in hospitals and for first-responders.

Why do some sites require an appointment, others not?

The benefit to appointment-based systems — like those at Hillsborough County, CVS Health and the Pinellas Department of Health — is that they enable providers to gather enough supplies for the day and properly space cars. But booking an appointment with one of these providers within a week is nearly impossible as they continue to fill up.

First-come, first-served systems, like BayCare Health and Community Health Centers, come with uncertainty. People could get tested that day with little-to-no wait, like at Tropicana Field on Thursday morning, or they could sit in their cars for hours only to be turned away when the site reaches capacity.

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