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Getting tested for coronavirus before the holidays? Here’s what you need to know.

Costs, testing sites and more in the Tampa Bay area.
Cars line up for COVID-19 testing at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Dec. 10.
Cars line up for COVID-19 testing at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Dec. 10. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 16, 2020

Coronavirus caseloads are continuing to increase across Florida as we near the end of the year and the holiday season. Local testing sites have reported long waits because of the increase in demand.

Hillsborough County recently added two new testing sites at the Vance Vogel Sports Complex and the William Owen Pass Sports Complex in response. Still, public health leaders say the sites are well stocked and prepared to administer a test to whoever needs one.

“Overall, our testing situation in the Tampa Bay area is much better than it was back in March and we were limited in what we could test,” said Dr. Nishant Anand, the chief medical officer of BayCare Health Systems. “That has improved.”

On average, Florida has added about 9,800 coronavirus cases per day this week, as infections have continue to steadily rise. The state has seen more than 1.1 million infections and over 20,000 deaths since March.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people get tested when they exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, have spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of someone who has tested positive or after engaging in high risk activities where social distancing is difficult. Those who have been referred by a physician or health department should also get tested.

Here’s what you should know about testing in Tampa Bay.

What is the current state of testing in Tampa Bay?

Maggie Hall, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health Pinellas County said many Thanksgiving travelers have sought testing.

“We get a daily count and it’s been going up,” Hall said. “But I think that’s the case with other testing sites also.”

Anand said BayCare has seen spikes in testing around March and April as well as over the summer, around July. While testing leveled off during much of the fall, demand started to rise again around late October and early November.

“There’s a couple things that we’re seeing,” Anand said. “Some people are getting tested, because they’re having symptoms of COVID-19. So we always encourage them to seek out medical care whenever they’re having symptoms of it. We’re also seeing people who have been exposed to COVID-19 getting tested.”

Hillsborough County has seen more of an “ebb and flow” in testing, said Jon-Paul Lavandeira, who oversees the county’s COVID-19 testing sites. Tampa Bay’s testing supply remains steady, he said.

“At this point, anyone who needs a test can get a test,” Lavandeira said. “There is not a shortage of tests, there is not a shortage of equipment, there is not a shortage of personnel, there is not a shortage of sites.”

Where can I get tested?

Hillsborough County lists all COVID-19 testing websites here, while Pinellas County lists its sites here. A list of Pasco County sites can be found here.

BayCare’s testing sites can be found on its website. To find a CVS testing site near you, visit their webpage. Walgreens testing sites can be found here.

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While some sites such as Tropicana Field or Raymond James Stadium offer drive up testing on a first-come, first-served basis, many sites require appointments in advance. BayCare requires a doctor’s referral, unless patients show clear symptoms during a screening at the test site. Be sure to check with the site you plan to visit in advance to see if appointments are required.

What does it cost? Will my insurance be billed?

It depends, so check the site before you visit and call your insurance provider for clarification.

Testing is free at public sites in Hillsborough County. The sites are collecting insurance information, and insurers will be billed, but they are prohibited by law from passing the cost on to consumers. Those without insurance will also still be able to get tested for free.

Insurance may be billed for those getting tested at Tropicana Field, though there is no cost for the person getting tested regardless of their insurance status.

Coronavirus tests at BayCare cost $85. The agency is working to secure government funding to pay for tests for the uninsured. CVS markets tests as free, but says consumers should check with their insurers to make sure tests are covered. Those without insurance will be asked for their Social Security number, driver’s license or state I.D. so their tests can be covered by federal funding.

Your best bet is to call the site ahead of time to ask about their policy and contact your insurer to make sure the test is covered. For those without insurance, there are still several options.

What are turnaround times for results?

Generally, it takes a few days to get test results for non-rapid tests, which are generally considered to be more accurate.

CVS says turnaround times of three to four days. Hillsborough County’s website says tests can take several days to process, but generally lists turnaround times of three to five days. BayCare’s drive through testing sites and its Tampa International Airport site generally return results within 48 hours.

Where can I get rapid tests?

Rapid tests are available at Raymond James Stadium and Lee Davis Community Resource Center in Hillsborough County. Tropicana Field in Pinellas County also offers rapid tests. CVS offers rapid test options and BayCare offers rapid tests at several urgent care sites for an out-of-pocket cost of $150.

Where can I get tested for COVID-19 antibodies?

Antibody tests, which show if someone may have been infected with COVID-19 in the past, are not currently available at Tropicana Field, any of Hillsborough County’s public testing sites or CVS. However, multiple American Family Care urgent care centers offer antibody testing

What are the holiday hours for testing?

Tropicana Field will be closed for testing on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Community Health Centers of Pinellas sites will be closed Dec. 23 through Dec. 25. Holiday hours are not available yet for testing sites run by Hillsborough County.

Basically, call ahead or check a testing website for hours if you plan to get tested on or around Christmas or New Year’s Day.

When is the best time to get a test if you’re planning to travel or have a gathering over the holidays?

The CDC advises people to get tested for COVID-19 one to three days before traveling. Travelers should also get tested three to five days after their trip and avoid nonessential activities for seven days after, even with a negative test result. Those who do not get tested after a trip should reduce nonessential activities for 10 days.

Is it still safest to stay home? Why?

The safest way to celebrate is at home, with the people with whom you live or to host a virtual gathering, according to the CDC.

False negative results are possible with coronavirus tests. A negative COVID-19 test is not a guarantee that you won’t get the virus after the test is administered.

“Getting tested only tells you that you don’t have COVID-19 at the time you get tested,” said Anand. “And so there still is there’s still possibility that you could develop COVID-19 after the time that you’re getting tested.”

The CDC warns that travel can expose people to the virus, whether in airports, gas stations, bus stops or other common areas. The agency provides several recommendations for safer travel on its website, including getting vaccinated for the flu prior to travel.

Do not host a gathering if anyone in your household or other households attending has tested positive for COVID-19 and does not yet meet the criteria for safely being around others. Also do not gather with anyone who has coronavirus symptoms, may have been exposed to someone with the virus or is at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

What are the best precautions to take around the holidays?

For those who do plan to travel or gather with people outside their households, the CDC has compiled extensive holiday guidelines.

Those who do plan to hold gatherings should consider limiting the size and duration of the celebration, and assess the social distancing behaviors of attendees prior to the event. During the gathering, people should keep six feet apart from those outside their households, wear a mask when they’re not eating or drinking and frequently wash their hands, the CDC says.

Outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor gatherings. Consider keep windows and doors open or turning central air and heating indoors to continuous circulation to keep a steady airflow inside homes.

“You always want to have a safe holiday and you never want to put your family members at risk,” Anand said. “We always recommend, first, not to have a large gathering, just given what’s going on this year. There is hope in sight with the vaccine but I think we still have to be vigilant right now.”

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