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COVID test crunch means hours-long waits before Thanksgiving

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 24, 2020

People wait in line at a Covid-19 walk-up test site in Washington, DC on November 23, 2020. The United States hopes to begin a sweeping program of Covid vaccinations in early December, the head of the government coronavirus vaccine effort said on November 22, 2020. "Our plan is to be able to ship vaccines to the immunization sites within 24 hours of approval" by the US Food and Drug Administration, Moncef Slaoui told CNN. "So I expect maybe on Day Two of the approval, on the 11th or the 12th of December." (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)  (ERIC BARADAT/AFP)
People wait in line at a Covid-19 walk-up test site in Washington, DC on November 23, 2020. The United States hopes to begin a sweeping program of Covid vaccinations in early December, the head of the government coronavirus vaccine effort said on November 22, 2020. "Our plan is to be able to ship vaccines to the immunization sites within 24 hours of approval" by the US Food and Drug Administration, Moncef Slaoui told CNN. "So I expect maybe on Day Two of the approval, on the 11th or the 12th of December." (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images/TNS) (ERIC BARADAT/AFP)
By Emma Court and Elise Young Bloomberg News

You can bring wine to Thanksgiving, bring sweet potatoes, bring congealed salad if you must. But you can’t bring COVID-19, and that’s causing hourslong lines at U.S. testing centers, triggering desperation among people yet to be cleared for the holiday meal.

They’re waiting outside even as health officials warn a negative result is hardly a guarantee of safety – and they could be boxing out those who have symptoms or were exposed to the virus. The safest course of action is to stay home. Still, many people are hanging their plans to give thanks Thursday on a test.

Brandon Mintz, a 25-year-old data analyst in Buffalo, New York, found himself in a bind last week when his parents in nearby Binghamton told him he needed a screening for the family get-together. No available testing slots would give him results in time. He postponed the trip initially, then his father found appointments in Binghamton, where Mintz is planning on a rapid test.

“I just want to be able to be home and be around them without that even being a concern,” said Mintz, who recently had a virus scare in his office. With infections rising, “I think a lot of people are overwhelmed and have the same ideas.”

The U.S., where about 258,000 have died from the coronavirus, has struggled to implement a unified and successful approach to fighting the disease. President Donald Trump made a point of flouting his own administration’s safety recommendations, and governors have imposed a patchwork of precautions on an exhausted population. Amid the disarray, some Americans plan large celebrations as a matter of political defiance. Many others are just muddling through as safely as they can.

In downtown Brooklyn on Sunday, about 120 people were already in line at an urgent care chain by around 10 a.m. They faced a seven-hour wait – so long the clinic cut off the line. Undeterred, Lauren Brown, a 34-year-old who planned to drive to Virginia this week to get together with her parents and sister, came back again the next day, when she waited about an hour-and-a-half alongside other test-seekers.

“I did it more for my mom, although I think even with the negative test she’ll still be worried,” Brown said. She added that the long lines seemed at odds with TV commercials that tell locals to get screened.

“There’s a disconnect between what they’re encouraging and what’s available,” she said.

Appointments were booked solid on Monday morning at 15toKnow, a pop-up tester in the parking lot of Willow Grove Park Mall, 30 miles north of Philadelphia.

Keith McCarroll, 55, a sales representative from Warminster, Pennsylvania, said his son had COVID-19 and so the whole family was being tested. He had been hoping for $75, 15-minute tests for him, his wife and daughter, but they were sold out until Saturday. The McCarrolls will get the results of their $99 PCR tests on Tuesday night.

Long lines have proved an opportunity for independent contractors with TaskRabbit who find line-standing gigs for things like Black Friday sales are often in high demand during the holiday season. This year, some have stood in for people seeking COVID-19 tests, Rebecca Weill, a company spokesperson, said by email. She noted that workers know what the job is ahead of time and can choose to say no if they’re uncomfortable.

Though Thanksgiving is the immediate reason for the testing crunch, it also reflects record levels of infections. The U.S. reported more than 170,000 new cases each day over the past week, on average. It performed about 1.7 million tests daily over that period, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

Laboratories, meanwhile, continue to grapple with shortages of critical testing supplies that have hampered their capacity since the pandemic’s early months.

In the face of a “major upsurge in demand,” Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said at a Monday briefing that New York City is bringing in mobile testing units and distributing self-collection kits to those in lines.

Testing capacity is also being added in neighboring New Jersey. Pop-up locations at schools and other public buildings are planned through year-end to handle a crush of people as the December holidays approach, Governor Phil Murphy said at a Monday news conference.

“It gets tougher before it gets better,” Murphy said. “You’ve got supply-chain issues that are real.”

Health experts for months have warned that COVID-19 screenings are no panacea. Tests capture only a moment in time, may miss emerging infections and can produce false negatives, so they must be combined with mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.

“Testing does not replace basic health measures,” said Patrick Godbey, president of the College of American Pathologists. “You cannot test yourself out of a pandemic.”

Those who celebrate Thanksgiving with others face risks while traveling and at the event itself, where people will be eating and thus not wearing a mask, said Robin Patel, an infectious disease specialist at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.

“It’s so hard, because it’s such an American tradition to get together for the holidays,” she said. “But putting others at risk – it’s just not worth it, frankly.”

Patrick Nash, a 46-year-old Chicago tax lawyer, started having flu-like symptoms Wednesday, including a fever. His doctor’s office had only one slot, days away, but Nash tested negative for COVID-19 at the emergency room.

“I would hope at this stage in the pandemic it would be easier to get tested,” he said. “It’s also super frustrating that everyone’s rushing to get tests, it seems, so they can travel and spend time with their extended families over the holidays, which is making it difficult for people who actually need a test.”

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