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Demand for coronavirus testing rises as Thanksgiving approaches

Deciding when to get tested can be complicated, especially when you account for incubation periods and wait times for results.
People in their cars make their way through the line at the COVID-19 testing site located at Tropicana Field, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
People in their cars make their way through the line at the COVID-19 testing site located at Tropicana Field, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 17, 2020
Updated Nov. 19, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Coronavirus test sites in Tampa Bay are seeing an increase in demand as case numbers rise across the state and people hope to get results before Thanksgiving.

The line for free coronavirus testing at Tropicana Field on Tuesday morning stretched more than 150 cars deep. Vehicles snaked around the parking lot before coming up to large white tents where medical professionals conducted tests.

A man in military fatigues stood by the entrance, waving in cars and letting drivers know to expect a two-hour wait. Several turned around there or later left the line as it crawled forward. By 1:45 p.m., the site was at capacity and closed to anyone not already in line.

“We’ve seen a big demand since Friday,” Pinellas County spokeswoman Ashley Johnson said. “There’s all sorts of reasons. We do have the holidays coming up, and I know people are planning on traveling. We’ve also seen an increase in cases around us and around the country.”

Demand is rising in Hillsborough County, too, where more than 3,250 tests were conducted from Friday to Monday. That’s a thousand more tests than those conducted during the same time period a week before.

Both rapid tests and the “gold standard” PCR tests are available for free at the Trop and Raymond James Stadium. Rapid antigen test results are ready within 15 min to an hour. But the standard nasal swab, which can take five days or longer to return results, is said by medical professionals to be more reliable.

BayCare Health Systems has also seen an increase in use of all of its COVID-19 related services, including testing, said chief medical officer Nishant Anand.

“COVID is still here in our community, and it’s starting to increase again, which is not what we want to hear as we go into the holidays” Anand said.

Brian Swanick, 34, plans to get tested at Raymond James on Wednesday in advance of Thanksgiving. His girlfriend went Tuesday and waited in line an hour and a half for a rapid test.

“We’re already having a modified Thanksgiving, but we want to get tested for others' peace of mind,” Swanick said.

Anand encouraged people to avoid gatherings for the holiday, but said those who do get together with loved ones should do so outside and at a distance, if possible.

“For folks who have to do it inside, that’s where it gets much more difficult,” Anand said. “We know from studies a lot of folks have gotten coronavirus and COVID from eating inside.”

Those eating inside should use air-conditioning and open doors and windows to help with air circulation. Masks, hand washing and distancing are also important.

Swanick and his girlfriend are meeting friends in Alabama over the weekend to camp and climb. Everyone is getting tested before they go and is staying in separate tents once there.

Thanksgiving Day is more complicated as they juggle a number of families and different ranges of expectations and comfort. His family decided to cancel their celebration this year, and this will be the first time in more than five years that he misses Friendsgiving. He plans to drop off a green bean casserole, but not go inside.

Instead, the couple will channel their energy into baking. They’ve turned to the New York Times Cooking page for inspiration and plan to bring flan, green bean casserole and pumpkin-flavored cookies to loved ones with whom they can’t celebrate this year.

“I think lots of people are dealing with this,” he said. “I’m not as stressed, because I can only control so many things and not go crazy.”

Deciding when to get tested can be complicated, especially when you account for incubation periods and wait times for results.

If you have symptoms such as a cough or fever, get tested right away, Anand said. For those who want peace of mind before gathering with others for Thanksgiving, especially those who are at higher-risk, a negative test result is only good for the point in time when it was taken. You can contract the disease anytime between the test and the gathering.

Anand said the virus can develop anytime within 14 days. For people who do contract the virus, it most often shows up on tests five to 10 days after exposure. If you’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, the best protocol is to isolate for two weeks.

“We are just doing our best," Swanick said, “testing a couple days before we go and then abandoning all plans if we feel bad or get a positive result.”

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