COVID-19 cases are starting to surge across Florida and testing demand is on the rise, with some sites experiencing a two-hour backup and others facing an early morning crush of people waiting in line to get swabbed before work or school.
To accommodate the demand, some test sites are shutting their gates two hours early to get to everyone in line before closing time. Others are opening more drive-thru lanes, and some private sites are extending their hours.
“This is all based on what is going on with the numbers,” said Mike Jachles, a spokesperson for the state-run testing at Hard Rock Stadium on the Miami-Dade/Broward line. “Not only are people coming if they are concerned they are positive, but there is also more for repeat testing going on. People are coming back for peace of mind.”
After a September lull, the state began to see an uptick in new COVID-19 cases in October. In the last two weeks, Florida has reported nine days with more than 4,000 new cases, and the state reported 6,257 new infections on Thursday. On Friday, the state reported results for 89,737 tests with reported 5,245 total new cases.
The Hard Rock testing site, considered one of the busiest in the state, tested 2,859 people on Wednesday, a higher number than its 2,811 tests conducted on Oct. 3, a month earlier. Residents are flocking to the site to get either the new rapid test, a regular diagnostic PCR test, or both.
For the last few days, Hard Rock has been shutting the gates two hours early to get everyone through before closing time at 5 p.m. The rapid tests deliver results within an hour. The PCR tests take about two days to get results but are the most accurate.
“We are open seven days a week. The numbers they are doing there are remarkable,” Jachles said.
At Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, where the Florida Department of Health in Broward County has started drive-thru COVID-19 rapid (antigen) testing, the line of cars stretched a mile long onto Federal Highway through much of the day on Thursday. On Friday, a testing site worker at Holiday Park reported a 3?-hour wait. And at the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the state recognized the demand and added a line to its drive-thru to get more people through faster, according to John Jameson, public information officer for Palm Beach County.
Blake Dale, 26, said he waited three hours at Hard Rock Stadium twice in the last 12 days and three hours twice at Marlins Park to get tested. He opted for rapid antigen tests. The first time, feeling achy and congested, he tested positive. He has since been trying to get a negative result. On Tuesday, he finally got a negative result with a rapid test, but wants to confirm the result with the standard, more accurate PCR test. He planned to go to Fort Lauderdale’s Holiday Park on Friday.
“The sites are kind of chaotic, but I have been waiting in the lines because I want to make my roommates and parents feel more secure that I am for sure negative and make everyone feel more at ease around me,” Dale said.
On Thursday, the Florida Department of Health reported test results for 108,000 people, the fifth day with 100,000-plus results in the last two weeks. The seven-day average for the number of people in Florida being tested for the virus — about 78,000 — has been climbing throughout the month of October and continued into November. It had dropped as low as 50,000 a day in August.
Even as people flock to parks, stadiums and community centers to be swabbed at no cost, only about four of every 10 people in Florida are getting tested for the first time. The number of repeat test-takers has been increasing in recent weeks.
“We’re six months down the road, so you would expect the percentage of first-time test takers to go down,” said Jason L Salemi, an epidemiologist and data expert at the University of South Florida. “Florida likes to say we are testing a lot, but it’s important to be testing new people, too. You want to hit both targets.”
Salemi said first-time test takers have a higher chance of testing positive. “What’s driving them is not the novelty but more likely someone around them has gotten the virus or they are starting to feel symptoms." The positivity rate for new test takers Friday was about 14% compared with 7.41% for all test takers.
In Palm Beach County, which reported 458 additional cases of COVID-19 new cases on Thursday, the Health Care District of Palm Beach County offers COVID-19 testing at seven sites.
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“Patients are waiting in line for our walk-up sites to open in the early morning," said spokesperson Robin Kish. All seven sites are seeing increased demand, she said. Testing volume has nearly doubled in the last month from 383 COVID-19 tests on Oct 13 to 713 COVID-19 tests on Nov. 3.
Results are coming back
Even with the testing volume increasing statewide, results are coming back faster than in the early months of the pandemic when they were taking 10 days or longer. Curative Labs, which handles results for 10 state-run sites, including Hard Rock Stadium, gives patients results by text or email. Rapid (antigen) test results are sent within one hour. PCR test results average 30.38 hours to receive.
At its seven sites, the Health Care District of Palm Beach County said results are being provided in 48 hours or less.
While free, government-run test sites typically close by 5 p.m., many urgent care centers are staying open until 9 p.m. and offering results in 10 to 24 hours. However, private locations may charge a fee or bill insurance for the test. In the last few weeks, Holy Cross Health in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs has seen a 15% increase in people coming for COVID-19 tests, with evening hours particularly busy.
Have a tip or comment? Health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @cindykgoodman.