Testing sites see record traffic as omicron disrupts holiday plans

COVID tests are in high demand this week with many planning to travel and fearing possible exposure
Janai Kornegay hands out forms while working at the Viral Solutions drive-thru COVID testing site Tuesday in Decatur. The line for testing stretched more than a block as people prepare for Christmas travel. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Janai Kornegay hands out forms while working at the Viral Solutions drive-thru COVID testing site Tuesday in Decatur. The line for testing stretched more than a block as people prepare for Christmas travel. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

As a cold drizzle fell on Tuesday morning, a line of cars spilled into traffic in both directions down North Druid Hills Road out of the parking lot of Decatur’s First Alliance Church.

This testing site is not a place Shantai Smith expected to find herself just days before Christmas. But there she was, along with dozens of others idling in their cars in a line that stretched for blocks, waiting to have her nose swabbed yet again to check for evidence of coronavirus.

“I thought we were reaching a place of improvement,” Smith said. “It’s just really disappointing that it’s almost like we’re starting all over again based on these lines.”

In a flashback to scenes from earlier in the pandemic, Georgians are once again getting tested for COVID-19 in droves ahead of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The long lines at testing sites were among the most visible signs that a holiday season many had hoped would be “normal” will once again be colored by COVID-19 and the fast-spreading omicron variant.

The CDC announced Monday that omicron has become the dominant variant in the U.S., accounting for 73% of all new infections in the country last week. The CDC’s regional estimates for Georgia and seven other Southern states estimate that omicron made up more than 95% of all new positive samples tested last week, up from 37% the week before. The percentages are based on a small number of positive COVID samples that are sequenced to determine which variant they are.

Viral Solutions — a local company that runs 18 testing and vaccination sites across Georgia — said it performed about 5,500 tests Monday, the most administered since the company began testing in August 2020, according to its co-founder and president Ron Sanders.

The line of cars to get into the Viral Solutions' drive-thru testing site in Decatur on Tuesday stretched more than a block in each direction on North Druid Hills Road. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Not only are huge numbers of people getting tested, they are testing positive at alarmingly high rates. Positivity rates at Viral Solutions’ sites were hovering at around 25%, Sanders said Tuesday, the highest he said he had seen yet.

After a rise in tests and infections driven by the delta variant, there had been a lull in testing demand, with the company performing about 1,000 tests per day for much of the fall, Viral Solutions’ other co-founder and CEO Dr. Benjamin Lefkove said. He said they saw a small uptick around Thanksgiving, but nothing too substantial. The situation has changed rapidly in the last seven to 10 days, Lefkove said.

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Tests administered and positivity rates, he said, are “rising very sharply — much sharper than the previous surges we’ve been in.”

Wait times for tests at some Viral Solutions locations were as long as two hours Monday, Lefkove said, but most averaged around 45 minutes.

Some who were in line Tuesday said they were getting tested for peace of mind ahead of planned travel or holiday gatherings, which they hoped could still go on as planned, assuming they tested negative. Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport said Monday that they expect 3.7 million passengers will pass through the airport over the next two weeks, approaching pre-pandemic levels of holiday traffic. Millions more are expected to take road trips.

One of those was Brian Carter of Stone Mountain. After staying in Atlanta last year, he said he plans to fly home to visit family in Maryland for the holidays this year.

“Everybody’s just testing to make sure we’re safe before we get together,” Carter said. “And if we’re not safe, then we just won’t get together.”

Genevieve Gadsden, who recently turned 78, was among more than 100 people waiting for a test in the cold outside Fulton County’s COVID-19 testing site on Boulevard before it opened at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Gadsden said she was getting tested as a precaution due to the rampant spread of the omicron variant.

“I was supposed to be going to dinner with my sister (for the holidays),” she said. “Even though I don’t have symptoms, I want to be comfortable. I just want to be safe.”

“I thought we were reaching a place of improvement. It's just really disappointing that it's almost like we're starting all over again based on these lines."

- Shantai Smith

Others, including Victoria Cheshire and Ian Barton, said they were forced to sit in line after being unable to find rapid tests at drug stores around the city. In response to a surge in demand, CVS and Walgreens announced this week that they are limiting the number of at-home test kits customers can buy.

Many others, however, said they had been in contact with people who had since tested positive and were concerned that they’d already been exposed. Some had already made the difficult decision to cancel their plans before learning their test results.

One of those was Smith, who had been looking forward to celebrating with family who were coming to Atlanta from up and down the East Coast.

Then she got a call Tuesday morning that a family member had tested positive. That meant her son and his daughter who were on the way from Virginia would have to find a hotel room. Her brother who had planned to fly in from New York would have to cancel his flight. And all of their in-person festivities would now have to happen through screens.

“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “It makes it feel like we’re never going to get out of this.”

- Reporter Zachary Hansen contributed to this article.