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Tampa Bay residents line up at public sites for free COVID tests without appointments

With the holidays and a surge from the omicron variant, demand for testing is up.
People wait in a line that wraps around the  building of West Tampa Community Resource Center, a Hillsborough County Covid-19 testing site, in Tampa on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.
People wait in a line that wraps around the building of West Tampa Community Resource Center, a Hillsborough County Covid-19 testing site, in Tampa on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 28, 2021|Updated Dec. 29, 2021

Looking for a free, same-day COVID-19 test in Tampa Bay this week? Get in line.

At Hillsborough County’s sole government-run testing site, the queue has often circled the building in the days after Christmas, with some people reporting waiting more than an hour to get through. That site at the West Tampa Community Resource Center tested 2,394 people on Dec. 26. That is up from 1,059 tests on Dec. 20, and is more than five times what was about 400 tests daily in November.

In Pinellas County, the testing site at the Center for Health Equity in St. Petersburg had a wait of around 90 minutes on Monday afternoon, as a dozen masked people waited outside and about 100 more stood inside. One man brought his own folding chair. Results from rapid tests there arrived within an hour, as promised. More accurate PCR test results came within two days.

Pasco County, like Hillsborough and Pinellas, also has just a single government-run testing site, a drive-through site at Gulf View Square Mall in Port Richey. It closed in May but reopened in August as cases rose. That site, a Florida Department of Health in Pasco spokesperson said, has seen a “slight” increase in demand for tests since the beginning of the month.

Most testing sites in Hillsborough closed earlier this year when demand waned, so as not to waste money, said Ryan Pedigo, preparedness and response director for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough. So far, he said, the county’s lone site has been able to handle the renewed demand brought on by the omicron variant.

In Tampa Bay, the days of massive drive-through COVID-19 testing sites outside of stadiums and performing arts venues have passed. Testing is available at retail pharmacies, urgent care clinics and in the form of home test kits, officials say, so the need for multiple county-run sites has lessened.

“There are lines, and that’s because there are a lot of people right now who are looking for tests,” Pedigo said of the Tampa site, which recently added staff to increase testing capacity. “But those lines are moving. People aren’t waiting an excessively long time. They’re not waiting two hours.”

Pharmacies and other testing providers also appear to be experiencing an increase in demand. As of Tuesday afternoon, the earliest available appointment at any CVS store in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties was five days out, according to the CVS website. Walgreens’ testing appointment site was redirecting visitors to a “virtual waiting room” indefinitely, due to “exceptional demand.”

Barbara Mabee of St. Petersburg exited the test site at the Center for Health Equity on Monday after arriving an hour and 20 minutes earlier. She had no symptoms but learned she’d been exposed to COVID-19 over the weekend. She first tried to find a take-home test, but couldn’t find one despite following up on several leads from Nextdoor.com.

She then tried making an appointment for a drive-through test at a retail pharmacy, but said she couldn’t find any available time slots.

“It has been a challenge,” Mabee said after getting a rapid test. “The county health department site directed me here.”

Urgent care clinics, such as AFC Urgent Care centers in Pinellas County, do not require appointments for testing, but it may come with a cost. Even if the test itself is free, patients may still be charged for the visit.

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Lines form outside the Center for Health Equity from people seeking COVID 19 testing on Tuesday, December 29, 2021, in St. Petersburg.   Both rapid and PCR tests were given if requested.
Lines form outside the Center for Health Equity from people seeking COVID 19 testing on Tuesday, December 29, 2021, in St. Petersburg. Both rapid and PCR tests were given if requested. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Boyzell Hosey ]

Alexis Sanders and her daughter got tested at the public site in St. Petersburg Monday after Sanders’ niece, who had been babysitting the 5-year-old girl, tested positive a day earlier. After learning that a test at an urgent care clinic would cost them $100, even with insurance, Sanders said a family member told her about the Center for Health Equity.

“I didn’t know it was free,” Sanders said. “We both got tested, but we don’t have any symptoms. I just want to make sure she didn’t give it to her.”

Steve Dierking, who described the process in St. Petersburg as quick and pleasant, said he was fully vaccinated and had gotten his booster shot, but was feeling “cold symptoms.” He was there to get his fourth test since 2020.

Each person tested at a county site is asked why they’re seeking a test, whether it’s due to symptoms, upcoming travel or a possible exposure. Pedigo said that from what he’s seen in Hillsborough, it seems that much of the demand is from asymptomatic people who were exposed over the holiday.

It’s possible that more public testing sites could be opened in Tampa Bay. Ultimately the county’s emergency response officials will make that decision, Pedigo said. Opening a new testing site, he said, takes at least a week.

There are more public testing resources available in Florida’s most populous counties. Miami-Dade County has 34 Department of Health-affiliated testing sites, including two opened this week due to increased demand. Broward, with 1.9 million people compared to Hillsborough’s 1.5 million, has 10 public testing sites. Seminole County, which is smaller than both Hillsborough and Pinellas, on Tuesday reopened a fourth COVID-19 testing site as it saw demand surge.

“We are monitoring the situation ... and exploring the possibility of additional testing sites based on the ability of current testing locations,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health in Pinellas County wrote via email. “As you know, we also have three vaccines which have proven effective against the virus, and much of our focus is on the distribution of those vaccines.”

Some counties, like Miami-Dade and Seminole, are handing out home COVID test kits to the public. The Florida Department of Health distributed tens of thousands of such kits to each county, but the decision on how to use them was made at the local level.

Pinellas County received 80,000 of those home test kits since late August, Department of Health spokesperson Tom Iovino said, and distributed them to long-term care facilities, hospices, skilled nursing facilities, group homes, EMS and fire rescue agencies, rather than directly to the public.

“Again,” Iovino said, “the best protection against the COVID-19 virus is getting vaccinated.”

Times staff writer Ivy Ceballo contributed to this report.

• • •

Where to get tested

Pinellas County: The Center for Health Equity, 2333 34th St. S in St. Petersburg. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. No appointments needed. Site will be closed Dec. 31. To find a private testing provider, visit: covid19.pinellascounty.org/testing.

Hillsborough County: The West Tampa Community Resource Center, 2103 N. Rome Ave., Tampa. Open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Site will be closed Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. No appointments needed.

Pasco County: A drive-through site is located outside the old Sears at Gulf View Square Mall, 9409 U.S. 19, Port Richey. It’s open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Appointments can be made at testing.nomihealth.com/signup/fl. Walk-ups are accepted from 3:15 p.m. to 7 p.m.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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COVID AND THE FLU: Get a flu shot and the COVID vaccine to avoid a ‘twindemic.’

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