Virginia National Guard soldiers and airmen collected samples for COVID-19 testing at a long-term care facility April 28, 2020. (U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)
As Virginians struggle to access COVID-19 testing amid an ongoing surge, the state’s health department will open nine new community testing centers to increase accessibility, according to a news release from Gov. Ralph Northam.
The sites will be near, or on the same property, as existing community vaccination centers in Charlottesville, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Prince William, Richmond and Roanoke. The first testing center, at the Richmond International Raceway, will open on Saturday, and eight additional sites will be added “in the coming weeks,” the administration announced.
“Testing is a critical tool in our fight against COVID-19, and we must continue to do everything we can to increase access,” Northam said in a statement. The sites are expected to operate between four to six days a week, depending on the location, and to provide testing between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. All nine centers will be appointment-based, which can be scheduled through the state’s scheduling system, according to VDH spokesperson Cheryle Rodriguez.
“We understand that there is a lot of demand for testing,” said outgoing Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver, “and this expanded capacity through the CTCs will help address some of these critical needs across the commonwealth.”
The sites will offer PCR tests, which are considered the gold standard for accurately and reliably diagnosing COVID-19. Results, though, currently take between three to four days, even as the state has boosted its laboratory capacity through partnerships with universities and private companies.
Virginia, like much of the country, is grappling with a shortage of COVID-19 rapid tests amid an unprecedented rush in demand. While deaths attributed to the virus have remained low throughout the current surge, infections in Virginia have reached historic levels, with 15,840 new cases reported on Thursday alone, according to VDH data.
The percentage of tests that come back positive has soared to more than 33 percent across the state, and hospitalizations have also risen quickly, largely driven by unvaccinated or partially vaccinated patients, according to doctors. The wave of symptoms and close exposures — coupled with holiday travel, workplace requirements — and the return to school — has sharply driven up the demand for tests.
State officials have also been contending with national supply chain shortages. Rodriguez said the department has been working to diversify its selection since spring of 2021, submitting new orders for tests as more options come on the market.
Those efforts have included an order of 500,000 BinaxNOW antigen test cards from the manufacturer Abbott. “As of January 5, approximately 387,040 of these cards remain on backorder,” Rodriguez wrote in a Thursday email. A standing order for Lucira test kits has been equally unpredictable, and the agency requested 10,000 Ellume home tests from the federal government but has yet to receive any.
“VDH is aware that many people are having difficulty accessing the rapid antigen testing and that’s also a multifactorial problem,” Dr. Laurie Forlano, VDH’s deputy commissioner for population health, said in a news briefing earlier this week. “There are some challenges with manufacturing and supply chain issues that’s just having trouble keeping pace with this surge in demand.”
Local health departments have been working to scale up testing, but the state’s new large-scale community sites are a shift in strategy for the agency, which has largely focused its efforts on more vulnerable patients and congregate settings such as schools and homeless shelters. According to Rodriguez, VDH has distributed nearly 254,000 rapid tests to local health departments and community partners, including free clinics, since diversifying its orders. Another 141,492 tests have been offered to public and private schools.
The community PCR testing sites will be funded through an initial $5 million grant from the agency, though it’s not entirely clear what will happen when that money runs out. According to the release, VDH is seeking funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to reimburse expenses and continue testing deployment.”
The agency recommends testing for COVID-19 five days after an initial exposure, though a three- to five-day window is also acceptable, officials said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently shortened its quarantine and isolation guidelines to five days, followed by strict mask use — though the agency came under fire for not requiring at least one negative test result before the end of an isolation period.
Federal health officials have since clarified that patients can take a test before coming out of isolation if they want to and have access to one. Critics, though, speculated that the agency’s guidance was based less on scientific evidence than the current shortage of rapid tests — a problem that’s continuing to impact states and localities.
“As this is a time of high demand on testing and on the health system, if you do not have symptoms or a known exposure, VDH encourages people to postpone any non-essential travel or events that would prompt them to test beforehand,” the department stated in the release.
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