The struggle to get a COVID-19 test is real

Increased demand, limited tests and testers create huge hassle for metro Atlantans
Lynn and Len Sinclair wait in line for COVID-19 testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning, Dec. 28, 2021. The couple were exposed to COVID-19 through a Christmas guest. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Lynn and Len Sinclair wait in line for COVID-19 testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning, Dec. 28, 2021. The couple were exposed to COVID-19 through a Christmas guest. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A holiday family gathering at Len and Lynn Sinclair’s Midtown house turned into a Christmas fiasco when one guest later tested positive for COVID-19.

The vaccinated and boosted pair waited three days and then joined what seemed like the rest of metro Atlanta on the hunt for a test. After two false starts, they got tested Tuesday by workers at the Fulton County site at Boulevard and Highland Avenue after about 45 minutes.

Getting swabbed for the coronavirus in itself has now become a test of managing bureaucracy (and patience) while competing for vital medical information. The results — which are learned within days — can indicate whether a person can safely see friends or hold the hand of a family member for the last time.

Tens of thousands of metro Atlantans during this last week have endured their own version of Sinclair’s quest thanks to the sudden surge of omicron infections combined with a massive demand for testing and a shortage of healthy staff to administer the tests. Officials and testing contractors are determining how to add testing capacity and trim lines.

Sinclair will remain a worried grandfather until he gets his results.

“I just hesitate to think that my exposure would hurt anyone, especially a loved one,” said the 70-year-old retiree.

Craig Geter, left, waits in line for Covid testing at the Fulton County Center for Health and Rehabilitation on Tuesday morning, Dec. 28, 2021.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Early evidence suggests the fast-spreading omicron appears to cause in most cases mild illness especially for those who are vaccinated and boosted and the sickness from an omicron infection can resemble a common cold. But the rapid rise in omicron cases could still overwhelm hospitals.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp said the state would deploy about 200 National Guard members beginning next week, with about half going to testing sites and the other half to assist hospitals. He also announced plans to spend $100 million over the next 13 weeks to boost staffing at hospitals across the state.

He and public health professionals are asking people without serious COVID-19 symptoms to save hospital capacity by getting tested elsewhere.

“We’ve gotten through his before, we’ll absolutely do it again. We’re all in this together,” Kemp said. “We will work diligently to provide aid and cut down on peoples’ wait times at test locations. But we want to urge Georgians to be patient and be compassionate to your fellow neighbors and citizens.”

An injection of money and more boots on the ground should help the walloped testing system. The number of PCR tests administered statewide has increased by 31% over the last seven days, according to Kemp’s office. About 170,000 new tests statewide were administered in the last six days, according to data compiled Tuesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The share of people who tested positive has crept up each of those days, from 20% to 33%.

The Georgia Department of Public Health has hired labs to offer additional testing sites and extended hours at existing sites, DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said Tuesday. Existing labs under contract are hiring more people to help with testing, and some school-based testing staff have been temporarily reassigned to help the general public.

Ultimately, the rapid spread of omicron is fueling the high demand for testing to the point of inundating sites in Georgia and across the country.

Mako, a testing contractor with 46 sites throughout Georgia, had some locations report a tenfold increase over the last seven days.

“Our staffing team continues to work around the clock to bring on new team members as quickly as possible,” said Mako’s COO Josh Arant. “Wait times will get increasingly better each day.”

Arant asked for patience during the omicron spike. He said his company has more than five months of testing inventory and continues to provide results within 24 to 36 hours.

None are immune

The long line Monday at the West End Mall site included people from all walks of life.

Craig Geter wasted nearly three hours in line over two days trying to get him and his two teenage sons, all of whom are feeling ill, tested at the Emergent-run site. Between the electricity being down and an accident on the highway slowing staff, Geter and his sons finally got their tests at Mako-run Boulevard site Tuesday.

“It’s been a hell of an experience,” said the 56-year-old Vine City resident.

Natalie Hall, a Fulton County commissioner, had just finished a 43-minute phone call with her mother in the West End line when the AJC called her Monday. She was fifth from the front of the line, which she said wrapped around the parking lot.

“I don’t care what contractor you hire, they’re going to have to, unfortunately, deal with the overwhelming numbers, and that’s something they don’t have any control over,” she said. “They’re doing the best they can.”

DeKalb Commissioner Lorrain Cochran-Johnson said she waited two hours Tuesday morning at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church testing site near East Atlanta.

“Unfortunately, I really believe because of the holidays we’re going to just see a continued increase, and that will mean that we need to expand resources to provide additional testing sites,” Cochran-Johnson said.

DeKalb announced Wednesday it would provide 5,000 at-home COVID-19 test kits to try to increase access to testing. Fulton made a similar promise on Christmas Eve.

Chad Wasdin — spokesman for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Department — said the longest wait was about two hours on Monday. He said officials might reevaluate the number of testing locations after the New Year depending on if demand wanes or stays high.

Dr. Lynn Paxton, head of the state-run Fulton Board of Health said this all reminds her of the increase in cases caused by holiday gatherings last year.

She knows people are tired of hearing about the coronavirus and upending their lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday it has shortened the recommended time that Americans infected with COVID-19 should isolate, from 10 days to five days if asymptomatic, because research shows omicron transmission happens in a shorter window.

But many critics found the timing dubious, considering business leaders like Delta CEO Ed Bastian called for the CDC to decrease the 10-day guideline.

“We already have a population that is tired of COVID and many people who don’t want to lift a finger to prevent it … so we’re having to deal with the realities of life,” Paxton said with a sigh, “so life is full of compromises.”

Photographer Ben Gray contributed to this story.

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, the line was long for COVID-19 testing at Marietta First Church of the Nazarene on Dallas Highway. (Shelia Poole/AJC)

Credit: Shelia Poole

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Credit: Shelia Poole