As Prince William County’s COVID-19 cases rise, so too has the demand for free tests. But at least for now, the county is unable to boost the number of free tests it can offer residents because of a lack of lab capacity, county officials said Tuesday.
Prince William officials have had to shut down the county’s free COVID-19 testing sites early five times since Friday, Nov. 13, because they’ve reached capacity. That included twice on Monday, Nov. 16 and twice on Tuesday, Nov. 17.
In some instances, testing sites were closed just 30 minutes after opening, said Prince William County Assistant Fire Chief Matt Smolsky, who oversees the county’s free testing effort.
Smolsky attributed the high demand for testing to increased awareness about rising COVID-19 cases across Virginia and the U.S.
“It’s all over the media. Now that the election is over, the pandemic is back in the spotlight,” Smolsky said Tuesday afternoon.
Also, COVID-19 cases reported in Prince William County have been on the rise in recent weeks. The county reported 158 positive cases on Tuesday and 213 on Monday. Monday’s number was partially blamed on a backlog that kept some test results from being reported to the Virginia Department of Health over the weekend. But since Oct. 27, the county’s seven-day average of new daily cases is up about 55%, according to state data.
The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday might also be driving the demand for tests, but Smolsky said he doesn’t know for sure. County and contracted workers administering the free tests don’t ask people why they want to be tested, he noted.
No one is turned away from the free tests, whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or not, Smolsky said.
Through a partnership with Sentara and about $5 million in federal and state coronavirus relief funds, the county has been offering free tests on a set weekly schedule since mid-July. The county has the ability to administer 200 tests a day, a number that likely won’t increase despite the rising demand because of the inability to process more tests, County Executive Chris Martino said during a Prince William Board of County Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
“We have sufficient money in testing already, so funding hasn’t been the problem for the testing. It is really the capacity,” Martino told the supervisors. “If we could buy more, we would.”
In response to a question from Supervisor Margaret Franklin, Dr. Alison Ansher, director of the Prince William Health District, noted that the latest surge in demand is a reversal from the late summer and early fall when the county saw a decline in demand for COVID-19 tests.
Franklin, D-Woodbridge, asked Ansher whether she thought Prince William County has enough COVID-19 testing.
“Is [the testing surge] because people are planning on traveling, which we are not thrilled about, and want to know if they are negative before they meet with family for Thanksgiving? I guess we’ll have to see if the trend continues,” Ansher said during the meeting.
“It could be because of the news that in the United States, as well as in the state of Virginia and the national capital region, that we are seeing more transmission. We’ll have to see if the trend continues. If the trend continues, we’ll certainly look toward … helping to provide more testing opportunities.”
Smolsky noted that the free county tests are just a fraction of the total number of tests available in the county. Most urgent care centers are offering tests as are hospitals and many doctors’ offices.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, COVID-19 testing in Prince William County peaked in early June with a seven-day average of 1,154 daily tests. It fell to a low of 544 tests a day in early July and now stands at about 835 daily tests.
As of Tuesday, Nov. 17, a total of 164,756 COVID-19 tests had been administered in Prince William County since the pandemic began. Of those, 12,150 have been free tests administered by the county.
In light of the demand – and the inability to add more tests to the free sites in the short term – county officials are urging residents to arrive at the testing sites when they open or even earlier.
“If they want to be tested, they need to be there at the time we open, and even that’s not a guarantee,” Smolsky said.
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