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Is this the end of public COVID testing sites in Tampa Bay?

The last one listed by Pinellas County closed a while ago. But the vendor says it is open.
Robert Dinwiddie of St. Petersburg gets his nose swabbed during a COVID-19 test at Tropicana Field on Feb. 7. The test site closed two weeks later, part of a wave of closures that has left both sides of Tampa Bay, for the time being, without a free, walk-up site.
Robert Dinwiddie of St. Petersburg gets his nose swabbed during a COVID-19 test at Tropicana Field on Feb. 7. The test site closed two weeks later, part of a wave of closures that has left both sides of Tampa Bay, for the time being, without a free, walk-up site. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 24|Updated May 25

TARPON SPRINGS — Those in search of a free, walk-up COVID-19 testing site in Pinellas County recently may have headed to the northern reaches of the county expecting a familiar scene: orange cones directing traffic, health care workers decked out in personal protective equipment.

They found, instead, an empty parking lot.

That’s all that surrounded St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Monday morning, when the Tarpon Springs church was still listed on Pinellas County’s website as the only public testing site left in the county — which would have made it the only one left in both Pinellas and Hillsborough.

By the end of the day, Pinellas County had removed the church from its list. Like Hillsborough, it now directs those looking to get tested to pharmacies, as well as urgent care centers.

Related: Tampa Bay has ‘high’ COVID levels, masks recommended indoors
All was quiet Monday at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Tarpon Springs, which had been listed as a walk-up COVID-19 test site. After a Times reporter found the site inactive, Pinellas County removed the church from an online list of test locations.
All was quiet Monday at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Tarpon Springs, which had been listed as a walk-up COVID-19 test site. After a Times reporter found the site inactive, Pinellas County removed the church from an online list of test locations. [ JACK EVANS | Times ]

The barren asphalt outside St. Timothy marks the end, at least for now, of the kind of testing apparatus that dominated the early part of the pandemic, a public-health patchwork run by cities, counties, and companies and organizations that received government funds. Sites at Tropicana Field and Raymond James Stadium once drew winding lines of cars, but demand has plummeted.

The city of St. Petersburg ended testing at Tropicana Field in February. The last Pinellas County-contracted site, in Largo, closed around the end of March, said Tom Iovino, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. Hillsborough County closed its last public test site in March.

“Sometimes sites only saw one person a day” before closing months ago, said Ryan Terry, spokesperson for the health department in Hillsborough County. “That’s not an exaggeration.”

People can now get at-home test kits for free from the federal government, or make an appointment at a pharmacy. Pasco County still advertises a drive-through test site at Gulf View Square mall in Port Richey open seven days a week.

Or they might avoid getting tested at all. The United States is now experiencing another surge in COVID-19 cases, and Tampa Bay’s rates are “high” by federal standards. But “people have stuck their heads in the sand about coronavirus,” said Jill Roberts, an associate professor with the University of South Florida College of Public Health.

There’s also “this enormous shift from it being the responsibility of the states and counties and government to it being the responsibility of the individual,” Roberts said. “I think that message has been sent by the closing of these sites.”

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Related: The U.S. Postal Service is offering more free COVID tests by mail

The closure of these sites has coincided with the end of federal funding to cover COVID testing and treatment for the uninsured. Miami-Dade County announced in April that it would keep its free testing sites open, using Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements; county Mayor Daniella Lavine Cava told the Miami Herald the county would “continue to make testing and vaccination as accessible as possible for those with or without insurance.”

In Tampa Bay, though, there are fewer options for those without insurance. A test in a clinic or doctor’s office can cost more than $100 out-of-pocket, plus charges that could be tacked on for specimen collection or a physician’s visit, as Johns Hopkins University has noted. And to order free at-home kits, a person still needs a home address and internet access.

“Even though to many of us it seems really easy, there are still biases there,” Roberts said. It’s another problem of access that could hurt people already at high risk, including people with low incomes and the unhoused.

Related: Florida COVID cases jump 53%. Tampa Bay transmission levels rise.

Pharmacy chains such as Walgreens and CVS do continue to offer free testing. And public testing sites aren’t necessarily gone for good: Terry said they’re designed to be activated quickly if demand spikes.

Some mystery surrounds the Tarpon Springs site. ID Tech Molecular Labs, which operated the site, has told local officials it’s still running, Iovino said. An ID Tech spokesperson, in a voicemail left Monday for a Tampa Bay Times reporter, said the site is open for appointments only and that signs at the site says as much.

But a Times reporter visited the church Monday and found no test-related signs, nor anything else that would suggest a testing site. The ID Tech spokesperson did not return a follow-up phone call.

The church’s pastor, Curt Snare, confirmed Tuesday that the church is no longer a test site. The company that had provided the service ran out of government funding, he said. It shut down weeks ago.

• • •

How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in the bay area.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

• • •

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.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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