California National Guard will help at testing sites as demand overwhelms capacity

In a fresh sign that coronavirus testing capacity is stretched beyond its limits, the state will deploy National Guard members to 50 testing sites it operates across California, including six in San Diego County.

Locations in Linda Vista, Chula Vista, El Cajon, Escondido, National City and Oceanside will receive two medical specialists each, an official with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press office said Saturday. It was not immediately clear how just two additional workers could help turn the testing tide at state-run sites, but a statement released Friday indicated that there are plans to send additional personnel to those locations in the coming week to help with logistics, including crowd control.

The move comes as San Diego County has continued to experience unprecedented levels of demand for coronavirus testing. In the first week of the new year, the region averaged 23,000 coronavirus tests per day, according to health department records. That’s about 4,500 more every 24 hours than were processed the same time last year, a moment, many will recall, was itself seen as a crisis level of operation at the time.

A walk-up testing center at Cal State San Marcos in North county testified to the frayed nature of the current situation Thursday, its line stretching for blocks, reaching a distance further away than was the case during the pre-Christmas rush.

It was a mixture of motivations, from curiosity to confirmation, that brought them out, some sitting in folding chairs having anticipated a multi-hour wait.

One couple, who declined to give their names, said they had been told by their supervisor two days earlier that they needed to have negative coronavirus tests before returning to their retail jobs though they did not have symptoms or known exposures.

Nearby stood James Petit of Vista, who said he queued up out of concern for his wife who has cancer.

“We’re being very careful,” Petit said, adding that his concern came from contact with a relative who tested positive though he himself did not have symptoms.

Further back, Josh Nataki studied a textbook on flight instruction for classes he is taking at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad.
“I traveled during the holidays, and I came down with kind of a cold, so I want to get tested,” Petit said.

Forty miles south, many waited in the testing line at Chula Vista City Hall.

The line was short with very little wait on Friday, January 7, 2022.

An appointment was required at the COVID test site set up outside the Chula Vista City Hall. The line was short with very little wait on Friday, January 7, 2022.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among them was Alyzen Ambito, who said she was exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

“I took a test at home and it came out negative, but I just wanted to come and take another one just in case,” she said after taking the test.

Several families at the testing site went for similar reasons, saying they had presented symptoms but previous tests returned negative. Paola Ruvalcaba went with her three children, after one of her kids had tested positive.

“My daughter tested negative twice – one test at home and one that I paid for – and then she tested positive at work. We came because we’ve all been exposed but we feel good,” she said.

Talk to enough folks waiting in these very long lines and one thing is clear: There is very little prioritization. Those with possible symptoms of coronavirus infection very often end up waiting behind those who were possibly exposed or those whose employers have ordered them to get tested, maybe even if they don’t have any specific reason to believe that they could soon be sick.

Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, the UC San Diego infectious disease expert who has helped administer the university’s well-regarded testing system for students and staff, likened the current testing mash to an iconically-jumbled game for kids.

“We have really thrown down a bunch of Pick Up Stix without much organization,” Schooley said.

Having people with symptoms waiting for hours next to those who may still be uninfected, he noted, just doesn’t make much sense from an epidemiological standpoint.

“If we had outstanding organizational skills and a better-organized health system, we’d have a line for people who have symptoms and a line for people who are screening to go back to school and work and maybe a third STAT line for people who have symptoms and comorbidities,” Schooley said, referring to the chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, that significantly increase the chances of ending up in a hospital bed.

The line for the COVID test site at the City Heights Recreation Center.

The line for the COVID test site at the City Heights Recreation Center started on the corner of Fairmount Avenue and Wightman Street and ended at the recreation center entrance on Landis Street.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The situation went far beyond normal last week with most local emergency departments reporting large spikes in the numbers of concerned residents skipping lines at testing centers and going to the hospital instead. The extra work came at the exact wrong moment, as many medical staffs simultaneously dealt with large numbers of health care workers calling in sick after themselves testing positive.

As daily new case counts remained above 5,000 headed into the weekend, the county health department urged the public in a written statement to get tested “only if you have symptoms,” but announced no new moves to prioritize or further organize its testing centers. The county can only do so much as its efforts represent only about 10 percent of the region’s overall testing capacity, with the majority performed by health care providers, drug stores and private for-profit companies.

The county’s announcement did appear to tangentially address the glut of return-to-work testing that is helping to lengthen lines pretty much everywhere, urging employers to “be flexible and if the job allows, let employees work remotely for their safety and the wellbeing of those around them.”

At this moment, experts said, the priority is testing for those with serious health problems other than COVID-19. That’s because special drugs called monoclonal antibodies, and also Paxlovid, a newly approved antiviral medication, are specifically approved for those at the highest risk of hospitalization and death.

Dr. Christian Ramers, a medical director at Family Health Centers with extensive public health expertise, said that Paxlovid has not yet been available in sufficient quantities to make a significant difference during the current coronavirus surge. However, a monoclonal antibody treatment called Sotrovimab that is highly effective at preventing severe illness in high-risk patients has been widely used in recent weeks.

“I’m seeing treatment requests come in about five per minute at this point,” Ramers said. “Our supply of Sotrovimab is just about gone.”

In this moment, he said, the idea of testing for travel and other optional activities feels a bit much. With the virus popping up everywhere, he said, the focus should be staying away from others as much as possible.

“We need to almost go into a self-imposed lockdown and take it easy while this settles down, because our hospital systems are at the breaking point, our health care staffing is very much in trouble,” Ramers said. “We just need more understanding from the public.”

Thus far, San Diego County’s public health department has continued to follow the state’s lead, taking no steps to curtail public activity.

Tamara Murga and Gary Warth contributed to this report.

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