Bobby Wilhide arrived at Frederick Health’s COVID-19 testing center off Monocacy Way at 7:30 Thursday morning, just 30 minutes after it opened. Three hours later, he finally got his test.
Wilhide said he expected the line to be long but not that long that early.
“This is just insane,” he said as he waited in his car, unsure of how many cars were in front of him. Wilhide said he had a cough, and while he figured it was just a sinus infection, he had to get a negative test result to be able to return to work.
Scenes like the one in Frederick Thursday are playing out in communities across the nation, as most states are seeing sharp spikes in COVID-19 cases and people are racing to be tested in the run-up to Thanksgiving.
The line at the Frederick Health Village has been significantly longer than usual this week, said Kelsey Shupe, Frederick Health’s director of marketing and communications.
Over the past seven days, Frederick Health has performed 500 more tests than it did in the prior seven-day period. If trends hold, it will perform 3,500 more tests in November than it did in October.
“We are actively working on plans to adjust our process, allowing us to test more individuals and speed up the throughput at the testing site [and] ultimately decreasing our wait times, which have unfortunately been quite long due to the increased demand,” Shupe wrote in an email.
Test logisticsThe test itself takes about 30 seconds to one minute to administer, according to Kyle Rice, but he waited more than four hours to get to that point.
About 15 cars before the front of the line, a Frederick Health employee takes a picture of the test taker’s ID and insurance cards. Then, about five cars before the front of the line, test takers are asked to call a number to register their information so Frederick Health can produce a label.
“So none of that really impedes time, because you’re basically sitting in there already,” Rice said in a phone interview with the Frederick News-Post. “… If it’s four cars every one minute, that’s probably as fast as they can do it. It’s just the sheer volume of people.”
Test results are usually available in 24 hours, but it takes Frederick Health much longer to actually call everybody who has been tested, Shupe said. Hence, the wait for results is usually three to five days.
Rice, however, said that he was able to access his results less than 24 hours after the test through the Frederick Health Patient Portal, in part because he already had an account set up prior to testing. This option is still being fully implemented, Shupe said, but Frederick Health hopes to have it fully functioning soon to cut out the three-day waiting period for a phone call.
“The Frederick Health Lab is doing a phenomenal job keeping up with the increase in testing volumes,” Shupe wrote.
Many people waiting in line Thursday morning said they were exposed to COVID-19 in their workplace and had to receive a negative test in order to come back. The increase in COVID-19 cases throughout the county will only increase the number of people seeking testing as they worry about exposure, said Rissah Watkins, director of planning and communications for the Frederick County Health Department, which is operating its own community-based testing sites.
“Testing has definitely increased over the last week or two, both for the county as a whole and for our health department testing sites,” Watkins wrote in an email. “More people are testing positive, which makes for more contacts and people wanting testing.”
If you’re thinking of getting tested at the Frederick Health testing location — bring something to do, like an audiobook, officials say. And try to arrive as early as possible.
Rice’s personal advice was to not bring kids. He brought his 2-year-old daughter because he didn’t want her to go to day care until he tested negative. Keeping her occupied for that amount of time was a challenge.
He noted that many people needed to have family members or friends come bring them extra gas because they ran out while waiting in line.
Lastly, Rice said be conscientious of the fact that there is no opportunity to turn around once you’re in line. And there are no bathrooms. Thursday morning, some people left their parked cars to relieve themselves in the woods bordering the Frederick Health property.
There are still private companies offering testing in Frederick County, such as CVS and Walgreens, but they require an appointment ahead of time. Wilhide said he tried to get an appointment at a pharmacy, but there was no availability for a couple of weeks. The testing site at the Walmart on Guilford Drive shut down completely on Nov. 6, further depleting the county’s options.
By the numbersFrederick County has surpassed 70 new cases of COVID-19 reported in one day four times this week alone. On Tuesday, the county smashed its previous single-day record of 74 cases with 87 cases. Thursday came close to breaking that record again, with 81 new cases reported.
During October, the Frederick County Health Department was reporting 25 cases per day on average. So far, the average number of cases reported daily in November is 51.
The increase in cases has coincided with the increase in testing, which many people see as a direct causation. But the positivity rate, which indicates the number of tests performed that come back with a positive result averaged over a seven-day period, has also been rising substantially. This means that although the number of people getting tested has increased, the proportion of people who receive positive COVID-19 results has risen, too.
“We are seeing more positive cases identified even as we’re doing more testing, which tells us that the virus is even more widespread in our community than it was before,” Watkins wrote.
While about 3 percent of people who got tested in Frederick County received a positive result for most of September and October, that number has since increased to 5.3 percent. At the state level, it’s even higher, at 6.82 percent.
The number of cases reported by health departments often under-represents the number of cases actually present, since many people who are infected with COVID-19 may not show symptoms and don’t get tested, according to experts. Over 3 million people in the U.S. could currently be contagious with the coronavirus, according to top disease experts cited in The Washington Post.
As case numbers go up, so do hospitalizations. There are currently 25 people hospitalized in Frederick County with the coronavirus. On Tuesday, there were 30 people hospitalized, a number that had not been reached since May. By comparison, at the start of October, only six beds were in use.
Dr. Manny Casiano, chief medical officer at Frederick Health, said the hospital is not yet seeing the number of patients it was at the very beginning of the pandemic. While the numbers are higher, the hospital staff is more equipped to help fight the virus as they know much more about it than they did in the spring. This has also led to fewer patient deaths, Casiano said.
“So, we are treating many more patients outside the ICU, and not on ventilators. This has resulted in better outcomes for patients and reserving our Intensive Care Unit for very sick patients,” Casiano wrote in an email.
There are some trends the hospital staff has continued to see. People with diabetes and obesity are the highest risk for dying of the disease.
To help mitigate overpopulation at hospitals, Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Tuesday he would limit the number of elective procedures permitted in hospitals, as well as limiting visitation in both hospitals and nursing homes.
Winter bluesFrederick County’s health metrics are trending similarly with the rest of the nation, which is reporting over 100,000 new cases per day and has 77,000 people hospitalized with the virus. The average new daily cases has shot up by 80 percent over the past two weeks. Watkins said the increase in cases might be attributed to more people spending time indoors due to the colder weather.
“As the weather is getting colder, more people may be opting for indoor activities and still having large gatherings or visits with family and friends,” she wrote. “All of that could be contributing to the increases.”
More gatherings, which are typical around the holidays, could lead to an increase in cases in the upcoming months. Casiano, too, said indoor gatherings are a major cause of new cases.
“We are now seeing the large majority of COVID infections resulting from home exposure — people gathering at home with people they think are COVID-free but turn out not to be,” Casiano said. “It is vital that people practice social distancing with face masks and hand washing, even at home.”
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against traveling for Thanksgiving to help reduce the spread of the virus. The Frederick County Health Department echoed those recommendations.
“Please consider making changes to your normal holiday traditions to reduce the risk for your family and friends,” Watkins wrote. “This is a year to stay closer to home instead of traveling, and to reduce the number of people you gather with. Taking these steps can help protect our vulnerable loved ones.”