People stood in line outside Sayre Health Center in West Philly for COVID testing a week before Thanksgiving

Some people looking for coronavirus tests in Philadelphia have discovered it’s not as easy as they hoped.

At least eight of the free COVID-19 testing centers in Philly that were once available are currently closed, Billy Penn confirmed, including six at Rite Aid storefronts and two at churches that were run by a group contracted by the city.

A city-run website lists more than 65 testing locations currently available. There are also pop-up testing events regularly happening around Philadelphia.

However, many of the dozens of sites that are open have long waits. At Sayre Health Center in West Philadelphia, people waited as long as 3.5 hours to be tested on Thursday. Other walk-up or drive-up centers are booked out days in advance. If you can’t reserve a spot in advance, you can try calling the sites to ask about wait times.

Last week the city averaged more than 7,000 daily tests, according to Health Commissioner Tom Farley, the most on record. That’s likely in part because of awareness around the intensity of the fall-winter surge. “This is possibly the worst period of the epidemic,” Farley warned at a Thursday briefing.

Many people are also seeking tests in advance of plans to gather with family for the holidays, despite health experts recommending those gatherings be canceled.

Testing operations at Rite Aid shrunk from nine locations throughout Philadelphia to just three — one in West Oak Lane and two in the Northeast — despite a map on the pharmacy chain’s website listing all nine as open and available.

Asked about the change, Rite Aid spokesperson Christopher Savarese verbally confirmed the closures. He said the company closed six stores after damage during protests against police violence. Savarese did not specify which protests, the extent of the damage, or when the shops might reopen. Philadelphia hasn’t seen widespread property damage since early June.

“Rite Aid is scheduling as many tests as possible each day and is at daily capacity due to the escalation of COVID-19 cases,” Savarese said in an email.

Two other sites, located in churches in Mantua and near Baltimore Avenue, are closed because of a contract that expired Wednesday, Farley said. City officials said they’re negotiating to resume the partnership with Rapid Reliable Testing, an Ambulnz subsidiary.

A UCity test site at Penn Medicine, which requires a referral Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Expect longer delays, but rapid test cards coming soon

Laboratories fielding thousands of tests a day are experiencing a backlog because of the nationwide coronavirus surge, which is causing some delays in turnaround.

“It’s maybe 2 to 3 days instead of 1 to 2 days,” Philly Health Commissioner Farley said Thursday.

PPE and materials shortages are also an issue. A survey conducted by the American Society of Microbiology and Association of Supply Chain Management found labs nationwide were operating at about 51% capacity for COVID-19 testing.

One mitigating factor expected to become available in Philly soon is rapid test cards, which can give people results right away and don’t require complicated set-ups to administer.

Provided by the federal government, these are being distributed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to areas in need, Pa. Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in a press release. “Antigen tests look for pieces of proteins that make up the SARS-CoV-2 virus and are less sensitive than PCR tests for detecting COVID-19 infections,” she said.

Farley confirmed that Philadelphia has received an allocation. “The rapid test cards from Abbot have been received,” he said, adding that they’ll be first deployed in federal health centers and urgent care centers around the city.

To expand availability of regular test appointments, the city will look to tap into federal funding from the CDC to help sites “hire more staff and increase their capacity,” said Philadelphia Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow.

The funding can also be used to purchase more supplies and improve sites’ patient communication technology.

Garrow also noted that people who’ve tested positive do not need to repeat the test after recovery.

The CDC initially said COVID-19 positive patients had to test negative for the virus twice before reentering society, but later revised that guidance. The agency now doesn’t recommend patients be tested after isolation and recovery.

“This thing has risen so quickly in the past few weeks that I’m not surprised that many [test sites] have long lines and backlogs,” Farley said. ” We’re responding in whatever way we can to try to address that.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...