With coronavirus numbers surging and the one of the biggest travel holidays of the year fast approaching, people across the country are hurrying to their nearest testing centers. The high demand for tests has led to hours-long lines around the country.
Local officials seem to have been caught off-guard and have scrambled to make adjustments. In Chicago, Denver, and Olympia, Washington, testing sites reached capacity and had to shut down within about an hour of opening. In Eric County, New York, residents trying to schedule an appointment for a COVID test through the county hotline have been unable to get through. Washington, D.C., has expanded the number and hours of its free testing sites after lines stretched for blocks, and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that residents call 311 to find sites with shorter wait times.
One major problem: A negative pre-travel test doesn’t guarantee you won’t spread the virus to Grandma, and experts are worried this false sense of security, combined with Thanksgiving travel and family gatherings, will exacerbate the surge.
“A test is valid only for a certain point in time. You can test negative one day and be positive the next,” Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told the Washington Post. “Are these people getting tested more than once? Are they quarantining between the time they take the test and when they see people? Are they getting exposed at an airport or along their drive to see family?”
The U.S. is reportedly testing more than 1 million people daily, compared to 100,000 to 300,000 people in the spring. The spike in demand has overwhelmed labs, leading to shortages of key supplies such as chemicals, pipettes, and tubes to measure and dispense those chemicals, as well as delays in results.
Johns Hopkins University researcher Gigi Gronvall told the Associated Press the U.S. is falling behind of being able to handle the virus, since we’d need to test somewhere between 4 million and 15 million people daily to suppress the coronavirus. The Trump administration has assured the country is able to test between 4 million and 5 million people daily, but the long lines and absence of a federal response indicate otherwise. Adm. Brett Giroir, who oversees testing, suggested the long lines were caused by testing locations not scheduling appropriately.
The safest way to see people outside your household for Thanksgiving is to quarantine for two weeks, but that window has passed. Traveling by car without close contact with others is less risky than flying—but still riskier than staying home. Masks and social distancing are still a must. And experts recommend getting tested five to seven days after you return (in addition to following any local ordinances), so expect the testing demand to continue beyond Thanksgiving. Still, public health organizations and experts plead: stay home. In addition to trying to cope with testing demands, state and city officials are also pausing school reopenings, instituting curfews, closing gyms and restaurants, expanding mask mandates, and threatening stay-at-home orders. With cases surging and the vaccine not expected until 2021, the winter ahead looks grim, even without families gathering indoors to feast.