Andrea Davila, a nurse at the Kaiser Permanente North Lancaster clinic administers a test for COVID-19 at the clinic's drive-thru testing site on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
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A surge in new Covid infections, coupled with supply challenges for rapid tests and a healthcare workforce stretched thin have left Salem residents with longer waits and fewer options for getting a Covid test.
That’s prompted local and state health officials to urge people not to seek testing unless they have symptoms of Covid infection or have been exposed to the virus via close contact with someone else who’s sick.
Statewide, about 149,500 Oregonians got a Covid test the week of Aug. 15, up from about 74,000 tests the week of July 18, according to Oregon Health Authority data. The share of tests that are positive for Covid has also climbed in that timeframe from 5.4% to 12.3%, showing the virus is more widespread in the community.
In the early months of the pandemic, county health departments and the Oregon Health Authority worked with community organizations to stand up mass testing events, where anyone could drive or walk in and get tested for the virus. But as health systems shifted their focus to mass vaccination drives, testing for Covid has moved largely to doctor’s offices and pharmacies, and often requires an appointment and specific symptoms or exposure to Covid.
“We’re definitely seeing a big demand for testing,” said Marin Arreola, who directs the Covid response for the Interface Network, a Salem-based health care access organization that’s worked to provide interpreters and outreach for testing and vaccination events.
“All the pharmacies and everything else is not really meeting the demand,” he said.
Arreola said this week, he began discussions with the Marion County Health and Human Services Department about resuming more regular mass testing events for the fall, but nothing has been set up yet.
The county does have several upcoming free mass testing events in Salem and Gervais in September which require preregistration. That includes a Sept. 19 event starting at 3 p.m. at the St. Vincent de Paul parish, 1010 Columbia St. N.E.
“The demand for COVID-19 testing has increased over the last month due to the increase in cases. We have been hearing that tests are becoming more difficult to find as demand has outpaced supply. We know that the plant where the Abbott rapid tests were manufactured was closed down for a short time, and now that demand has increased, they are working to get it back up and running,” said Jenna Wyatt, health department spokeswoman, in an email.
Wyatt said the rapid test shortage at grocery stores and pharmacies means people may need to seek out tests through doctor's offices and clinics, where results from the test typically take several days, rather than a few minutes.
"We are hearing from providers that tests and testing appointments are still available, but that community members often don't want to wait for them. This is understandable due to the inconvenience of quarantining while awaiting testing and results, but it is an important process to prevent spreading the virus until the supply of rapid tests increases," she said.
Tests administered at a doctor's office or clinic typically cost money or require health insurance, while Walgreens, Rite Aid and other pharmacies offer testing free thanks to federal funding. Mass testing events are also generally free.
Salem Clinic’s urgent care in north central Salem is one of the few drive-through testing sites in the area where anyone can seek testing. The clinic’s website encourages people to stop by if they need a Covid test prior to surgery or travel, as well as if they’re feeling sick.
Testing is available from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.
In recent days, the clinic has had lines of cars around the block. People arriving around noon Thursday were told to expect an hours-long wait, with an employee monitoring traffic giving new arrivals directions to a nearby taco truck in case they got hungry.
“With the variant and everything I knew it would be bad. I just didn’t expect it to be this bad,” said Elyse Duran, 37, a Keizer resident who joined the line midday Thursday.
Duran said because she was congested, her doctor told her she needed to get a Covid test before she could make an appointment at her regular clinic. After learning the line would be at least three hours long, she called out from work, went home to drop her kids off and then returned to wait in a line of cars on Northeast McCoy Avenue..
Ahead of her was Consuelo Olivar, 70, a Salem resident seeking a test with her husband. Olivar said they hadn’t had any known exposure to Covid, but wanted to see because the virus is so widespread in the community. She’d been told to expect a four hour wait.
Health care providers who offer local tests report slots are filling quickly in recent weeks.
As of Friday morning, Salem-area Walgreens pharmacies reported just one testing appointment available locally on Sunday afternoon.
Salem Health offers tests for people with symptoms of respiratory illness at 10 clinics in the area and is usually completely booked by mid-morning, even after adding slots to cope with rising demand, spokeswoman Lisa Wood said.
Patients can also get a doctor’s order for a drive-through test at Salem Health labs on State Street and in Dallas, she said.
A shortage of rapid test kits typically used in the hospital has caused Salem Hospital to instead send samples to its State Street lab for processing, Wood said.
Kaiser Permanente also offers Covid tests to members by appointment at its Northeast Lancaster Street clinic. While same-day appointments are available, slots can be full one to two days out because of higher demand, spokeswoman Kim Mounts said.
This article was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 27 to reflect that a scheduled Sept. 5 testing event in Salem was canceled. The next free mass testing event in Salem is Sept. 18.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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