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The demand for COVID-19 testing is surging — another challenge for overworked hospitals

A woman is tested for COVID-19 in a parking lot in Richmond where the health department set up...
A woman is tested for COVID-19 in a parking lot in Richmond where the health department set up a temporary walk-up testing center.(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 7:54 AM EDT
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As COVID-19 continues to circulate across Virginia, health officials are still grappling with the downstream effects — including a ballooning demand for testing.

In some cases, it’s created additional challenges for already overwhelmed hospitals. Last week, the Virginia Department of Health announced it would add another 170 testing events across the state this month “to help reserve our hospital emergency rooms and rescue squads for medical emergencies,” Dr. Laurie Forlano, the agency’s deputy commissioner for population health, said in a statement.

Some health care providers, including hospitals and urgent care centers, have reported a “significant increase” in patients seeking testing, added Cheryle Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the department. In Southwest Virginia, for example, Ballad Health processed a total of 9,004 tests between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4. The demand is almost triple what it was during the health system’s previous peak from Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, when it conducted 3,267 tests.

“Rapid tests may take as much as 48-72 hours,” CEO Alan Levine wrote in a series of tweets, adding that “you will NOT get a result faster by coming to the ER just for a test.”

Hospitals aren’t the only providers reporting a spike in demand. Throughout June and July, before the rise of the highly infectious delta variant, there were often fewer than 10,000 tests a day conducted across Virginia, according to VDH data. Last Thursday alone, though, more than 29,000 people were tested.

CVS has also reported growing interest not only in rapid and drive-through testing at its pharmacies but for the take-home kits available in stores. The demand is so great that the chain recently set purchase limits on three of the most popular brands.

“We’re continuing to work with our suppliers to meet customer demand,” spokesperson Tara Burke wrote in an email on Tuesday.

Supply is still in a far better place than it was at the start of the pandemic when state health departments were the only source for testing and set rigid criteria for which patients were eligible. Even when private labs began offering the service, turnaround times were sometimes a week or more, stymying the goal of quickly identifying and isolating new cases.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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