SAN MARCOS — As COVID-19 cases soar across the region, North County residents trying to get tested for the virus are facing long lines and sometimes waiting several hours at local testing centers.
County health officials announced the highest number of coronavirus cases reported all year on Wednesday, with 3,653 people testing positive for the virus. Demand for testing has surged as well — between the second and third weeks of December, there was a 45% increase in testing at county sites according to Sarah Sweeney, a spokesperson for the County Health & Human Services Agency.
Testing centers representatives in North County cities like San Marcos told The Coast News their resources have been strained by the overwhelming increase in demand for testing. Some locations are reporting longer than ever lines, staff being stretched thin by the demand, and those forced to wait often lashing out in frustration over the delays.
“People are getting really upset over testing…I’ve definitely had multiple people who started screaming and yelling in my face, there’s just so much frustration over this,” said Rich Block, a customer service representative for Carbon Health, a primary and urgent health care provider that operates testing centers throughout San Diego including one in San Marcos. The demand for testing is so high that the San Marcos location is entirely booked for urgent care appointments well into January, Block said—with virtually all of the clinic’s appointments being for coronavirus tests.
A COVID-19 testing site at California State University San Marcos, where residents reported waiting more than three hours in line before getting tested. Video by Elexis Saria
Pam Orense, a San Marcos resident, said that she, her husband, and their two children waited for over three hours to get tested at California State University San Marcos’s on-campus testing location (the testing site is free and open to the public without appointment).
“We got there 20 minutes before the site opened, but we were still there for almost 3½ hours. We were all shivering in the rain,” Orense said, adding that she doesn’t think that her experience is an isolated one. “Pretty much every testing site in our area has had over two hour waits for the past week…all of the at-home COVID test kits are sold out too. It’s just unfortunate — I’m praying it doesn’t get even worse after New Year.”
Long lines and waits upwards of three hours at Kaiser Permanente’s San Marcos testing location have become the norm, according to Jennifer Dailard, a media spokesperson for Kaiser. The testing center has increased its staffing and expanded its hours of operations in response, but the sheer volume of local residents seeking tests has still strained the site’s capacity, Dailard said.
“We’ve really been experiencing uncommonly high demand for testing around this holiday season…we’ve adjusted our hours and tried to adjust staffing best we can, but we’re sadly not an exception to what’s become the rule throughout the county, which is longer waits,” she said, adding that she thinks that the holidays have further exacerbated what was already a huge regional surge in case numbers.
“I think that especially this week with the holiday ending, you have people getting back to work and trying to figure out if they’re safe, you have companies and schools getting their people tested, and then there’s those getting tested to see if they’re save for travel as well.”
Ashley Miller and her husband drove 45 minutes from their home in Fallbrook to get tested at a drive-through clinic set up at The Shoppes shopping center in Carlsbad. Once they arrived, they waited over two hours to get tested, and Miller said that it was obvious that the site’s testing capacity was strained by the sheer volume of people who showed up.
“There were about 60 cars ahead of us when we got there so we had to wait two hours to get tested. It was run pretty smoothly overall but there were just more cars than there were staff to test. The long waits…are frustrating but the staff are really doing their best given the circumstances,” Miller said.
Miller added that she knows some people who ended up paying hundreds of dollars for rapid tests at private health clinics in order to skip the long lines.
The demand for testing has been so high that some of Carbon Health’s clinics have actually run out of rapid tests entirely, and some locations are starting to have to shut down walk-in tests during the day due to a shortage of testing supplies, Block said.
“We’re facing huge staffing and supply challenges, especially with a shortage of tests…we can’t even guarantee rapid tests for our patients now, we have to save them for heavily symptomatic patients and people are getting mad at us. Some days there’s just such an influx of people at the site that we just can’t take any more walk-ins for the day at all,” Block said. Those coming to the San Marcos location should expect to wait at least a couple of hours to get tested, he added.
Escondido resident Lily Yates said that she had a test appointment at Total Testing Solutions in Rancho Bernardo, but when she and her family arrived to get tested, site staff told them that the center was closed for the day after they had run out of test kits.
“It’s upsetting,” Yates said. “I drove all the way from Escondido and the two guys at the site said sorry we don’t have any tests, and our other location in Santee is closed down as well …I just think that’s silly, like we need more sites open — this really hasn’t been an easy experience.”
Having to devote increasingly more resources to meet the increasing need for testing has also had a ripple effect on health care providers’ ability to offer patients other services, according to Block.
“Where I really see the impact to this is in how hard it is now to get urgent care appointments…like if someone has a UTI or a broken ankle or any other malady, I just literally don’t have the appointments to get them in and treated, the appointments are pretty much all for COVID testing now,” Block said.
It’s not just testing centers that are overwhelmed — at home COVID-19 tests are also becoming increasingly hard to come by, with locals often finding store shelves that were full of test kits empty. Orense, Miller, and Yates all said that they went to testing sites in-person only after being unable to find a single test kit available at surrounding locations or online.
“They’re just nowhere to be found,” Miller said of the at-home tests. “I tried to order one online since we are sick, and I had a friend go to a bunch of different stores for me, and there were just none available.”
In Carlsbad, city libraries distributing thousands of at-home COVID-19 test kits supplied by the county ran out in just a couple of days, according to the city’s communications director Kristina Ray.