Coronavirus testing in Texas turns into hours of waiting

At 8 am Friday, the line of cars waiting at the Austin coronavirus testing site exited the parking lot and down the street.

The night before, Emi Zuniga waited hours for her nose to be cleaned at a test site in San Antonio.

And in south central Texas, a network of urgent care clinics has greeted callers with the automatic warning that an “unprecedented” number of people want to be tested.

Four months after the pandemic, demand for coronavirus testing is skyrocketing as protests, the opening of the Texas economy and the resurgence of cases send nervous residents to confirm that they are virus free. Problems arise at almost every stage of the testing process, starting with failed websites and unanswered phone lines used to schedule appointments, and extending to long delays before test results return.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. A late April report from Gov. Greg Abbott said “testing is the foundation on which the plan to open Texas is built.”

But the problems persist, hindering the state’s ability to delay the spread of the virus and identify people who need to isolate themselves.

“It is not at all easy to take a test,” said Zuniga, an educator. “This is a pandemic. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, you have to wait two days, you have to wait four days’ for your appointment, and then, once you get there, you have to wait another four or five hours. I am discouraged “.

Zuniga tried to register for a test at CVS, which offers free self-swab tests in association with the government, after learning that she and her daughter may have been exposed to the virus. The website was still failing and she turned to a local clinic.

Her daughter got a test appointment earlier this week. They sat waiting what felt like “forever,” says Zuniga, two or three hours.

It is not an uncommon experience.

A line of approximately 100 cars was formed at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in Austin at a COVID-19 test site.  June 26, 2020.

Across the state, test sites are reaching capacity and closing early, and Texans wait in hourly lines for them to be taken.

“Have we been having a rebound? Absolutely, “said Elizabeth Perez, a spokeswoman for Harris County Public Health. Testing capacity is” running out “every day, she said, with scheduled test slots often claimed before 9 am

Experts and health officials attribute the wait times to systemic problems that have tripled the state’s testing efforts from the get-go, including shortages of supplies and an underfunded public health system. That adds to the growing demand that some healthcare organizations say is due to the spread of the virus, to employees returning to work, and to more people being tested in nursing homes, jails, or prior to medical procedures. Plans for outdoor testing have also been thwarted by the weather.

In some places, the results are plain to see. Part of the state’s online testing center has been disabled, and the site says the wait time for phone calls may exceed 30 minutes due to “excessive volume of requests.”

First: People wait in their cars to get tested at the Portland Community Center. According to authorities at the test site, a maximum of 250 tests were available for Saturday morning between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm Finally: People wait in their vehicles to get tested for COVID- 19 at a temporary test site in Mission on Friday.

Eddie Seal and Verónica G. Cárdenas The Texas Tribune

Outside of test sites in various cities, stretch lines have become a common sight.

Austin resident Andrea Rosales waited nearly three hours in the car with her young son, who had been in contact with someone with the virus.

Authorities were counting the cars and cut the line behind her. Still, the tail moved slowly, she said. Her son was hungry. She had to use the bathroom. A car in front of them broke down.

“I’m like,” ‘My God, we should have [eaten] Lunch or something, “he said.” I just didn’t think it was going to take that long. “

A test site in San Patricio County, on the Gulf Coast, closed early Friday after reaching capacity in the morning.

At remote Alpine in west Texas, people queued for four hours last weekend waiting for a state unit to conduct tests.

And in San Antonio, a public test site was booked for days last week, and a registration system where people could sign up for appointments was temporarily closed.

Galileo González was able to get tested at a San Antonio clinic earlier this month. But the “test was crazy,” he said; He had to call the public health hotline to make an appointment more than 50 times because the line kept dropping.

A woman reads in her car while waiting for the test at the Portland Community Center.

González wanted to be examined after attending a large protest against police brutality. “It was ridiculous how difficult it is to get tested,” he said. Their results were negative nine days later.

Clinics and public health authorities are being challenged by the growing demand for tests.

Austin Regional Clinic has recently notified patients that the response time for tests has been lengthened, and patients sometimes wait five to 10 days. Quest Diagnostics, a laboratory giant, said it is seeing “record demand” and that orders for its diagnostic tests have increased by approximately 50% in the past three weeks.

In Lubbock, the University Medical Center is closing its access test site because the laboratory it works with has “critically low supplies” and has to keep them for hospitals. A spokesman for the center said it had seen demand for the tests increase “tremendously,” and that the number of positive tests had also increased. The rise in coronavirus infections has raised concerns that urban hospitals may be “overwhelmed” with patients, according to a press release from the Lubbock Medical Center.

A line of about 100 cars was formed at the Hancock Center in Austin while waiting for COVID-19 tests at the Community Care clinic ...

Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program and assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center at Fort Worth, said delays in testing hinder efforts to quickly identify, evaluate and quarantine women. people who have been in contact with an infected person.

“This is how we are really going to break these chains of infection,” said Cervantes. That is the “ultimate goal” of testing and contact tracking.

The way that laboratories report to health departments can prolong waiting times, he said. There may be days of test results thrown at once, and smaller facilities can send results through a fax machine, further slowing things down.

“With Texas, there has been a long delay in improving that reporting disease surveillance system and updating the way its surveillance system works,” he said. “It’s been an ongoing problem that every time you have these kinds of events, and something as big as the pandemic, it’s going to get in the way of everything.”

Purchase orders from the Texas Division of Emergency Management show that the agency has attempted to purchase evidence from entities such as the San Antonio University Hospital, the University of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley and the Clinical Pathology Laboratories, at a total cost of millions of dollars. There has been a shortage of test-related supplies in Texas and across the country.

He has also placed several orders with companies such as Beysa Safety Solutions Inc. for the viral transport medium and the swabs used to collect or move the test samples.

(It is unclear if all TDEM purchase orders have been fulfilled, which are paid or reimbursed in federal dollars. The state does not pay until an order has been delivered and a quality assurance exam has been passed, a TDEM spokesperson has said).

Meanwhile, Texans like Zuniga are trying to navigate the state’s testing infrastructure while balancing other pandemic demands, such as working from home.

“I am doing my lessons and PowerPoints,” said Zuniga. “But while I’m doing that, I’m on hold and they say, ‘Oh please wait,’ ‘don’t call here,’ ‘don’t call there,’ ‘no, we’re full.’ Or having to stop so I can try to start. I was online to see if I can try to register for a test. It was very frustrating because I felt like I was still hitting a wall. “

Zuniga was finally able to get tested on Thursday night. I had an appointment in the late afternoon. She was tested around 8 pm

Miguel Gutiérrez Jr. contributed reporting.