Demand for COVID-19 testing on the rise

A surge in demand for coronavirus testing means that residents using free, public testing offered by the county and state will wait about a week to get a test, plus a few more days to obtain a result. According to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, traffic at its patient call center and testing sites has nearly tripled since mid-June when the university expanded its testing capacity to 1,000 a day through use of a new machine at the lab in Edinburg.

Beginning this month, the university dramatically increased its testing capacity to ensure everybody who needs it gets swabbed. The lab is one of six across Texas processing COVID tests from all over the state. An average of 6,000 calls a day from Valley residents is no easy feat for screening staff to keep up with, and so in response, the university is working to rapidly expand testing capacity and hire new providers, clinical staff and call center employees.

Screening staff at the medical center on Friday said the hotline has been overwhelmed, creating a backlog as employees work nights and weekends fielding “thousands and thousands” of calls from concerned patients ready to get tested and get back to work.

Current guidance stipulates a 72-hour call-back period upon filling out the test screening form, and a steady surge in daily inquiries means the wait will be longer than is convenient for most, although no residents displaying symptoms will be turned away. After filling out the document at hipaa.jotform.com/form/200906004099147, UTRGV staff will call residents back to complete a short screening and to schedule an appointment. Those with health insurance should have their information ready, but for those without coverage, the university simply asks for ID and basic information like name, address and symptoms.

Within a week of filling out the form, prospective patients can expect to receive a call back to schedule an appointment for the next available testing date.

On Monday morning, 25 to 30 vehicles waited in line at UTRGV’s testing site in Harlingen. Law enforcement and medical staff signaled drivers to keep their windows up. Those conducting testing wore yellow gowns over scrubs, eyewear, face shields, masks, gloves and shoe coverings underneath the hot sun in breezeless, 90-degree weather.

When screenings began, physician assistants asked patients to roll down the window and cover their mouths with their masks. “What symptoms do you have? Where do you work? How long have you been sick? Are you in a rush to return to work? Have you been in contact with anyone who tested positive?”

For a 10:15 a.m. appointment, screening began right on time, but the line moved slowly so staff could ensure their own safety through social distancing and quick breaks underneath an air conditioned tent. In its entirety, the process took about two hours.

The COVID-19 test itself takes no longer than a few seconds. Like a flu test, technicians stick a swap up one nostril, swirl it around, and seal it up for processing at the lab. “You should have your results in two to three days,” said the employee who administered the test.

“Stay quarantined — if you test negative, then maybe you can go ahead and see a doctor to get checked out and see what this is,” she added.

Just like that — the test is over and residents are free to drive away. Though the registration, waiting period, and screening can seem daunting, the process will likely be streamlined as resources grow.

Currently, the drive through can process around 80 patients each. At the testing site in Edinburg, roughly 200 patients are being tested per day.