COVID-19 spike puts pressure on efforts to meet LA County residents’ rising need for tests – Daily News

As the omicron-fueled spike in the COVID-19 outbreak spurs a drastic increase in demand for testing, Los Angeles County is facing long lines at test sites, shortages of test-at-home kits in some venues, and the worrisome trend of people seeking tests in overtaxed hospital emergency rooms.

Local leaders aren’t alone in grappling with the problem. With the winter spike enduring, people across the nation have seen dire warnings about hospitals reaching capacity amid staffing shortages and thousands of holiday flight cancellations in part because crews were ill or in quarantine because of the more-transmissible variant.

President Joe Biden is under pressure to ease nationwide shortages of tests that people are using to determine whether they or their family members are infected. Long lines and chaotic scenes over the holidays marred the administration’s image as having the pandemic in hand.

Locally, the number of COVID-19-positive patients in the county surged to 2,240 as of Tuesday, a jump from 1,994 on Monday. Of those patients, 303 were being treated in intensive care, an increase from 278 a day earlier. The hospitalization number is the highest it has been since last February.

The county on Tuesday reported 24 more COVID deaths, bringing the overall death toll to 27,671. Another 21,790 cases were also confirmed, giving the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 1,780,154.

The rolling seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 22.5% as of Monday. That rate was below 1% in November.

In Washington, President Biden admitted Monday that not enough was done to build up testing capacity for COVID-19 ahead of the omicron-propelled surge.

“On testing, I know this remains frustrating. Believe me, it’s frustrating to me, but we’re making improvements,” Biden said.

In a reversal, the White House announced last month that it would make 500 million rapid antigen tests available free to requesting Americans, but it will be weeks, if not months before those tests are widely available. The administration notes those tests are on top of the existing supply of rapid tests and that even a small increase will help ease some of the shortages. Additionally, private insurers will be required to cover the cost of at-home tests starting later this month.

Test manufacturers had until Tuesday night to respond to the government’s contract request, and the first awards are expected to be made this week, Psaki said. The administration is still developing a system for Americans to order the tests as well as a means to ship them to people’s homes.

Pressed when the first tests would reach Americans, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday, “I don’t have an update on that at this point in time.”

Meanwhile, to meet the increased demand for testing, “L.A. County has expanded capacity at all testing sites by either adding additional days or extending hours to meet the demand in testing. Additional testing sites have also been added to meet the demand,” according to a statement with the L.A. County Department of Health Services.

In addition, county officials offer home testing kits, allowing residents with symptoms or who may have been exposed to COVID-19 to test at home at no cost and ship the kit back via FedEx.

Although the program was relaunched about a week ago, nearly 28,000 residents have used the tests, Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement.

“I recognize that our community, particularly those who are most vulnerable, is depending on us to expand testing services even more,” according to her statement. “That is why I am working with our Health Departments to expand testing at our existing sites through evening and weekend hours, launching mobile test sites, and providing home test kits to community members where possible.”

Trying to head off a troubling trend, L.A. County public officials have been urging residents to avoid visiting the emergency room to get tested for COVID-19.

“Emergency room visits should be reserved for those patients who are feeling severely ill – for example, those who are short of breath – or who have serious concerns about their health and who require immediate emergency care,” public-health officials said in a statement on Tuesday.

At some testing sites, lines have stretched for blocks as people waited to get tested.

On Tuesday, Long Beach City College’s Veterans Stadium testing site wasn’t backed up to the main road like it was after last week’s post-holiday gatherings. But it was still bustling, with cars lined up inside the stadium parking lot at around 11 a.m.

Testing has been “bananas,” said Jennifer Rice Epstein, a spokeswoman for the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services.

“Just like everyone else, there are COVID-related impacts to city staff,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to increase staff.”

She added that residents need to make an appointment to get tested because it helps decrease the load on staff and makes the whole process run more smoothly. If a resident doesn’t see a convenient appointment time, they should check again later because city-run testing sites are always adding appointment times, she said.

But for those who go to walk-up testing sites, including LBCC’s Pacific Coast Campus, the site will close to walkups one hour before the site closes, so plan accordingly, she said.

In the meantime, she said Health Department officials are currently strategizing how to make testing more efficient and how to handle the increased load, including changing the layout at the sites to allow more space for people seeking Rapid Antigen tests and staffing more of these stations to accommodate these tests.  The department, she added, has increased available PCR appointment slots by 500 to 1000 more (depending on the site).

A representative with Kaiser Permanente wrote in an email that “we have seen an increase in testing demand over the past two weeks and we are increasing appointment availability as a result of the omicron surge. Unfortunately, some people have had to wait in line longer than expected, even with an appointment.  We greatly appreciate our members and apologize for any inconvenience they may have experienced.”

Local community groups partnered with various volunteer organizations over the holidays and into the new year with regular, walk-in PCR testing.

At a North Hollywood church, a group that offers services to the area’s unhoused has been offering three-day-a-week testing. Stephanie Jager, executive director NoHo Home Alliance and pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church North Hollywood, said many people preparing to visit family for the holidays were grateful for the “walk-in option.”

At the same time, because PCR tests take a few days to deliver results, there was “some nervousness about getting test results swiftly enough for travel.”

The walk-up tests at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, 11031 Camarillo St. in North Hollywood, is being offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until January 28. Community groups may also see some potential challenges down the road in providing regular testing, but Jager said their organization has so far averted any major interruptions.

Jager said they started out partnering with CORE, the volunteer group founded by actor Sean Penn,  to provide tests three times a week in North Hollywood.

After that group moved its team over to help another organization, El Proyecto del Barrio, to provide tests in Pacoima — a decision Jager supports because of the need there — they were able to continue the weekly testing by partnering with another volunteer organization, Community Wellness America.

Jager said that they are also keeping a careful eye on the availability of testing supplies.

“One thing we are seeing looming on the horizon is a possible shortage of testing materials,” she said.

When they started working with the current volunteer organization, they had hundreds of tests in reserve, but they had to begin testing late this Monday, because they needed to pick up more tests and was only able to bring roughly 250 tests to their location, Jager said.

With students and teachers returning to campus after holiday breaks, many districts have vowed to step up testing, which will likely increase the demand even further.

For example, all Los Angeles Unified School District students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they can return to campuses when school resumes next week, the district announced on Monday.

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