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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Surge in demand for COVID-19 testing stretches local and regional resources to capacity

Adams Elementary School first-grade student Rita Mae Burnley, 6, gets a mouth swab from her father, Michael Burnley, during curbside COVID-19 testing in January at Chase Middle School in Spokane. Kindergarten student Jerome Burnley, 5, in the back seat with his sister, waits for his turn.  (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Arielle Dreher and Nico Portuondo The Spokesman-Review

With the continued surge of the delta variant, efficient and readily available COVID-19 testing may no longer be a guarantee in Spokane County.

Previously, local providers like CHAS offered drive-through testing at the Spokane Arena, then at Spokane Community College, along with vaccines. But those mass sites closed earlier this summer when demand for the vaccines dwindled and case rates dropped significantly.

Then last month, the delta variant led to a massive and now sustained surge in COVID activity and, therefore, demand for testing resources increased not only locally, but statewide. Health care providers are still offering testing, but not on a large scale, in part due to staffing shortages impacting hospitals and health care systems statewide, Spokane County interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velazquez told reporters Wednesday.

In simple terms, the demand for testing, mainly driven by rising local COVID-19 cases and venues requiring proof of a negative test for unvaccinated individuals, has begun to exceed the capabilities of some local and regional health care services.

According to the Walgreens online appointment scheduling system, no COVID-19 PCR or rapid test appointments are available anywhere in Spokane County on Friday or Saturday. Rite-Aid’s soonest appointment time in Spokane County for any kind of COVID-19 test is next Thursday, according to its online appointment system.

Walgreens and Rite Aid are listed as low- or no-cost providers of testing for those without insurance by the Spokane Regional Health District. Family Medicine Liberty Lake conducts COVID-19 tests that are covered by commercial insurance with a doctor’s recommendation to get tested or cost $125 with no doctor’s recommendation.

Family Medicine Liberty Lake was added this week to the list of locations providing COVID-19 testing on the Spokane Regional Health District website. According to a medical assistant at the practice, Family Medicine has been doing a lot of COVID testing in recent days, especially for patients who have been turned away from larger providers.

The Spokane Regional Health District recently asked the Department of Health for resources to open a mass testing site. That support could be slow in coming, however, due to demand seen nationwide.

“We’re not the only ones who could be asking for resources, and right now resources are really tight,” Velazquez said.

Local health care provider CHAS had already limited COVID-19 testing to established patients because of high demand, but announced Thursday it also will no longer conduct COVID-19 testing at its two urgent care facilities until Sep. 12 and shorten facility hours altogether. The reasoning is more complicated, and disturbing, than just a lack of supplies or resources.

Kelley Charvet, chief administrative officer at CHAS Health, said the decision was made primarily due to complex, ill patients accessing the urgent care clinics because of long waits at area emergency rooms. CHAS has had to balance testing with caring for these patients, Charvet said.

Established patients will still be able to schedule an appointment with their CHAS provider and get COVID-19 testing if recommended at their nonurgent care locations during that period.

Charvet said there have been no discussions or plans to open CHAS-run large scale testing facilities at a community location in the near future.

The situation has posed challenges for Spokane residents and organizations alike.

Recovery Café Spokane, a nonprofit branch of Community-Minded Enterprises that helps drug and alcohol addicts succeed in their recovery, had a staff member test positive with COVID-19 last week.

As a part of its safety protocol, the space was shut down and it had every staff member at Recovery Café get a negative test before they all return to in-person work. Some didn’t have an easy time getting a test.

“One employee said she had a difficult time getting a test,” said Traci Logan-Demus, chief human resources officer at Community-Minded Enterprises. “She went to several, and they told her they couldn’t give her a test since she wasn’t one of their normal clients.”

All employees exposed were eventually able to get a test, Logan-Demus said.

Despite high local and statewide demand, Spokane Public Schools will be able to execute a program of COVID-19 testing similar to one that it used last year, according to spokesperson Sandra Jarrard.

Jarrard said COVID-19 tests will be available at no cost to students soon. SPA also will implement contact-tracing, systems notifying families when an employee or student tests positive, and an online dashboard where the number of quarantines and cases in the school system can be viewed.

The testing situation also affected people planning on traveling or going to events. Joshua Barber, a Spokane Valley resident, said he had to drive to Yakima in mid-August to get a test for his unvaccinated 8-year-old child and hope that they got the results back soon enough so his family could catch a flight to Hawaii for a trip they spent thousands of dollars on.

Hawaii requires a negative test within a 72 hour period for unvaccinated travelers at an approved provider. They made the flight just barely but will no longer travel as long as their son is unvaccinated.

It’s unclear when the state will be able to secure more testing supplies or staff to local health districts.

Supply chain constraints and high demand mean the state is working with multiple vendors to get more testing supplies .

“We’re well aware of this occurring in many communities, and we’re working hard to bring in more testing supplies to the state from a number of different sources,” Nate Weed, acting deputy secretary of health, told reporters Thursday.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.