Holiday demand taxes COVID-19 test centers

  • Geoff Forester/Monitor staffMembers of the National Guard test people for the novel coronavirus this summer on Stickney Avenue in Concord.

Concord Monitor
Published: 11/26/2020 7:14:09 PM
Modified: 11/26/2020 7:14:02 PM

When Rachel Cole realized she may have come in contact with someone infected with COVID-19, she decided to quickly get a test out of an abundance of caution.

She didn’t have symptoms, but her roommate, a health care provider, suspected she had crossed paths with a positive case.

Cole had previously scheduled appointments to get tested through ConvenientMD with ease, but this time was different — the sign-up form was down on their website. When she tried calling, she was put on hold for hours.

Over the next couple of days, she tried to schedule appointments with CVS, ClearChoiceMD, and her primary care provider, al to no avail. The more Cole talked to people about her situation, the more it seemed her experience was the rule, not the exception. She heard stories of the countless hoops her friends had to jump through just to schedule an appointment.

“I feel that I have flexibility in my job and privilege, but there are so many people that don’t have the time and resources to do that and it’s unfortunate,” she said.

Even with all of the flexibility her job affords, she still hasn’t been able to find an appointment, she said.

With the holidays here, many people have been trying to take COVID-19 tests before traveling to see family. That increased demand at the same time as a new surge in cases has led to an unprecedented number of requests for tests. On a typical day, the state receives 350 test requests. On Monday of this week, the state-run testing sites received 1,500.

To keep up with the mounting demand, community COVID-19 testing sites have started prioritizing requests from people who report having symptoms of the virus, according to Laura Montenegro, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services. Symptomatic individuals should get their tests within 24 hours of their request, she said.

Those without COVID-19 symptoms, who typically get a testing slot within two or three days, can now expect a three- to four-day wait before they receive a slot — and that doesn’t account for the time it takes to get test results back, which could take up to three days. Montenegro said asymptomatic teachers and students are prioritized over other asymptomatic requesters.

Even private testing providers are seeing a new wave of patients. Testing centers in the state are administering over 7,000 COVID-19 tests a day, more than 4,000 more per day than in early September.

Jonathan Thyng, a doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Nashua, said when they first started doing testing in late spring, during the first wave of COVID-19 in the state, they would average about 30 tests a day. Nowadays, Thyng said it isn’t uncommon to perform 90 to 100 tests on a single day.

Despite the increasing demand for tests, the center hasn’t hired new staff. They have coped with the increasing workload by recruiting staff from within their clinics and becoming more efficient — the testers have refined their routines to the point that they can get patients in and out of the drive-thru within 15 minutes.

This has become especially difficult as the weather has cooled down. The testing site erected a heated trailer so testers can warm up in between shifts.

“It’s hard standing out there and swabbing all morning long in the cold,” he said.

Lauren Collins-Cline, a spokesperson for the Catholic Medical Center, said the hospital is adding staff to keep up with the growing demand for testing — the slots for tests fill up quickly every day.

Cole, who lives in the southeastern part of the state, said she’s disturbed by her testing experience, not because she won’t be able to wait to get an appointment but because she knows others who need a test more urgently won’t be able to.

“It shouldn’t have to be a lottery system of, hey, if you have the time and resources and privilege to spend this time looking for a test, then you can get one,” she said.

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