New Yorkers may experience delays or increased difficulty in getting coronavirus tests at their closest locations as several walk-in sites ration the tests by prioritizing symptomatic high-risk individuals, those in contact with a positive person and health care workers, nursing home employees and first responders on the pandemic’s front line.
Several walk-in Capital Region testing sites, including urgent care centers, recently limited walk-in tests to symptomatic patients as facilities become overwhelmed by long lines and wait times.
Demands for COVID-19 diagnostic tests, completed by swirling a swab deep inside a patient’s nasal cavity for at least 15 seconds, have increased following last week’s Thanksgiving holiday, which health experts estimate will contribute to a surging outbreak.
State Health Department officials capped Columbia County Health COVID testing clinics last week to test 50 and 75 patients per day — down from a maximum of 100, Columbia County Public Health Director Jack Mabb said Friday.
“For the next two clinics, they’re limiting us to 50 and 75 because of the uptick, the number of testing sites and testing in general across the state,” Mabb said. “There’s a big uptick in the amount of people getting tested. They may limit us for the foreseeable future.”
The county uses the state’s Wadsworth Center in Albany to determine new positive tests conducted in its near-weekly testing clinics. Drive-up clinics are typically held from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays at the former John L. Edwards Elementary School in Hudson. Wadsworth requires the county to ask about lab availability before clinics are scheduled.
Tuesday’s drive-thru county clinic at Shatford Park in New Lebanon tested 95 people. Results for the 20 overflow patients were outsourced to a national lab. Fifty-two patients were preregistered Friday and registration ended Monday.
“Right now, I’m not saying we’re going to limit our tests,” Mabb said. “We send people who are symptomatic, who we feel may be part of a cluster, to the rapid care in Valatie with an agreement with Columbia Memorial [Health].”
The state has more than 1,200 designated coronavirus testing locations, with 15 Department of Health drive-thru locations statewide.
The department has not rationed COVID tests at state testing sites, or required a ration at other facilities to date. Several medical facilities across the state are diverting or prioritizing COVID-19 rapid test and other testing inventory to balance the increasing demand on state and national labs.
The county has not turned patients requesting a COVID-19 test away to date. Additional patients in excess of the state’s 50 or 75-person threshold will receive a rapid quick-swab Abbott antigen test, Mabb said. The results are quicker, but less accurate than a PCR test.
“We are not turning people away who are asymptomatic or testing them, we’re only limited by what Wadsworth tells us we can test and now that we have the antigen tests we’re not so handcuffed,” he said.
The federal government purchases Abbott tests, and the county continues to purchase PCR, or the deep nasal swab tests.
“I don’t foresee us having a shortage of tests,” Mabb said. “[The delay] is about the processing.”
Officials collaborate at least weekly.
COVID-19 testing has shifted across the state, said Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore. The county uses the state’s Wadsworth Center in Albany to determine new positive tests conducted in its near-weekly testing clinics.
Testing capacity has changed at state labs as microclusters and hot spots have bloomed across the state, including most recently in Western New York, Central New York and the Finger Lakes regions. Officials tackle microcluster zones with thousands of targeted COVID-19 tests for several weeks until infection rates decrease.
“They take priority in the testing,” Linger said. “So [it] effectively is reducing the number of tests the state can take from us.”
Greene County testing events were limited last week to 60 patients.
“Anything over that, we have to send to Quest, which is a cost to the county,” Linger said, adding wait times for results may be twice as long from a national laboratory.
County contact tracers are speaking to between 20 and 25 people per positive case, Linger said, increasing the workload for local health department employees. The county reported nine new cases Monday, according to the state’s COVID-19 tracker.
“It becomes very difficult to do those when you’re limited to what you can send to the state lab,” Linger said. “We’re in the middle of revamping the operations within the county. We’re finding, now, a fairly large community spread with far more contacts than there were before.”
Testing symptomatic patients is a priority to reduce spread in the community, Linger said.
Albany Medical Center’s 11 EmUrgentCare offices, which has a locations in Coxsackie, Saugerties, Glenmont, Latham, Guilderland and Colonie, recently started offering walk-in COVID-19 testing for patients with multiple coronavirus symptoms or those with a prescription from an Albany Med Physicians Group provider.
“We do not offer community testing at Albany Med,” according to a statement Tuesday from Sue Ford Rajchel, Albany Medical Center’s director of communications. “We offer convenient testing to our patients (including for pre-op clearance), Albany Med health care workers, and first responders with high-risk exposure on our main campus.”
Asymptomatic patients seeking tests at EmUrgentCare are referred to state Health Department testing locations, including the mobile testing site at The University at Albany in partnership with Albany Med and St. Peter’s Health Partners.
Greene County Public Health scheduled three drive-thru COVID testing clinics for Wednesday and Dec. 16 and Dec. 21 at the Water Street parking lot behind the county office building, 411 Main St., Catskill. To schedule a test, call Greene County Public Health at 518-719-3600.
About 200,000 COVID-19 tests — some days more, others fewer — are conducted in New York state each day, and is more than any other state in the nation. The state could perform 500 tests in 24 hours at the pandemic’s start in March.
Appointment availability and wait times have exponentially increased at all sites, but more at certain locations than others, a state Health Department spokesman said.
DOH officials recommend New Yorkers call and ask providers about their available types of COVID-19 tests and requirements. Testing result timeframe, proximity and availability varies depending on multiple factors at the state’s 1,200-plus sites.
“There are many ways a patient can get tested ... we’re not the only game in town; there’s a lot of different options,” the spokesman said. “The state’s testing sites do not put any parameter on an individual being symptomatic or asymptomatic. Since the summer, we have worked with anyone who wants a test, and anyone who wants a test can get a test.”
Certain locations have left patients waiting in line for hours.
“So call,” the DOH spokesman said. “The department down the street might be jammed ... but pick another one if the line is longer at one. You have options.”
The spokesman could not provide the state’s estimated COVID-19 testing supply, he said, as equipment at 1,200 state and private medical facilities vary by the hour.
“You’re seeing increasing rates here all around the state, and that’s partially a product of people paying attention and increased awareness,” he said.
“The state is answering the bell; the state has proven that we can meet that demand and will continue to.”
Local health workers recommend patients who want to receive a test who do not have symptoms or knowledge of direct contact to other community testing sites, such as pharmacies or urgent care facilities, or recommend they sign up for a county clinic.
“We don’t have the capacity to say, ‘Come down at 2 o’clock,’” Mabb said. “They can’t just show up there ... they have to talk to one of the nurses here who assesses their situation.”
WellNow Health, which has an urgent care location in Hudson, tests a varying number of patients each day, according to a statement from a WellNow spokesperson.
“We are not concerned about our testing supplies at this time,” the spokesperson said. “We are not turning people away for COVID-19 testing. We recognize that the current spike in demand may lead to longer wait times than what we strive for under normal circumstances, however, our staff is doing everything they can to see as many patients as possible during our operating hours.”
WellNow would not provide daily testing numbers at its Hudson site.
“Generally, we’ve been seeing double the amount of patients we usually see during our busiest times,” the spokesperson said. “We expect demand to remain at an all-time high leading into the holidays and early 2021.”
WellNow has tested more than 300,000 patients across all locations since the pandemic began.
“Additionally, we are aggressively hiring more staff so we can continue to see even more patients within operating hours,” according to the health provider’s spokesperson.
To make an appointment for a COVID test, visit wellnow.com.
A Columbia County drive-thru COVID testing clinic is scheduled from 9-11 a.m. Dec. 15 at the A.B. Shaw Fire Company in Claverack. Preregistration is required to be tested and can be found on the Columbia County Department of Health website. Testing is reserved for Columbia County residents.
To make an appointment, visit columbiacountynyhealth.com/news/new-date-and-testing-site-for-covid-19/.
The increase in time to make a testing appointment is a product of demand, but generally has not affected the turnaround time for results, the Department of Health spokesman said.
New Yorkers are required to get negative COVID-19 tests before admission in hospitals for elective surgeries and procedures. Several states mandate travelers test negative before arrival.
Health officials are prepared to build temporary pop-up testing locations in communities as needed with expected surges through the upcoming holiday season and winter months, increase operating hours or the number of lanes to accommodate more vehicles at drive-up sites.
“We’re not surprised by our increase here — we’re prepared for this. We’re increasing testing capacity, we’re prepared at every turn,” the spokesman said. “This public health response is constantly evolving and we’re evolving with it.
“Part of the effective public health response is to remain nimble,” he added. “We’re better suited to be able to respond to increasing cases at this stage than we were in the spring because there was so much unknown at that time.”
The spokesman encouraged all New Yorkers to call and ask providers questions about availability, COVID testing options, potential cost and result turnaround to determine their ideal testing sites.
“We built a testing network that would rival anyone in the country and we did it quickly,” the spokesman said. “We’ve done it to ensure all New Yorkers who want to get a test can get a test.”
Testing is one piece of the puzzle in the state’s battle against the disease, the spokesman said.
“(A) negative test result is as good as that moment in time,” he said. “It doesn’t mean throw caution to the wind. ... That test maybe gives you confidence, but wear a mask, stay home, wash your hands — all the things we’ve been saying for months.
“These infection rates can and will go back down if we maintain vigilance,” he added. “It worked once. We do it again, it will work again.”
The state has ramped up testing and contact tracing capacity since its first official coronavirus case March 1.
DOH officials encouraged New Yorkers to pick up the phone when a contact tracer calls, and answer the questions truthfully.
“There are instances we’ve seen or heard where a contact tracer is given a hard time,” he said. “They’re doing important public health work; the more forthcoming an individual is with information, the better chance we have in identifying potential spread.”
To schedule a test or determine eligibility, call the state’s COVID-19 Hotline at 1-888-364-3065 or visit covid19screening.health.ny.gov.