Philly’s coronavirus response

This far into the pandemic, why is it so hard to get a COVID test in Philly?

Some providers describe high demand, but the city has no plans to add capacity. Residents are frustrated.

Registered nurse Tria Jones opens a swab for a COVID test at Philadelphia FIGHT's Mifflin Square location

Registered nurse Tria Jones opens a swab for a COVID test at Philadelphia FIGHT's Mifflin Square location

Matt Slocum / AP Photo
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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Brewerytown resident Cameron Williams had two potential exposures to COVID in the last month. Before he could return to work, he was required to get tested — but both times, he failed to find a site offering immediately available testing in Philadelphia.

When he searched the city’s testing portal, Williams said, appointments were at least four days out.

Eventually, he found tests via a friend who worked at a nursing home and had extra. He was negative, and able to return to his job as an internal medicine physician in Norristown.

“I can’t imagine the people that don’t have the same access I do trying to do this,” said the 33-year-old doctor. “It’s either, wait four days and be responsible, or just chance it and go to work. And that’s not conducive to getting over this pandemic.”

People all over Philadelphia say they’ve found COVID testing somewhat difficult to access right now. Pharmacies and urgent care centers offering tests are booked days in advance. Many healthcare networks require you to be an existing patient to get tested.

A patchwork of walk-up clinics offer tests throughout the city. But a year and a half into the pandemic, service at each site is infrequent, with some operating only on certain days or only for a few hours at a time. Some require a patient to have symptoms. Others require a car for drive-thru testing.

Even rapid tests, which are less accurate than the lab-run PCR tests but useful for confirming a negative, are sold out in many local stores, and not always available online.

The rise of the delta variant spurred a surge in Philadelphia testing demand, city Department of Public Health spokesperson James Garrow confirmed. The department recorded almost 60,000 tests last week — up from a low of more than 17,000 in mid-July. “We’re not at the highest [testing] level we’ve ever been, but are close to it,” Garrow said.

However, there are no plans to add more testing capacity, he said, because “only 3% of tests are coming back positive, which is universally accepted as being indicative of catching most of the disease in a population.”

It’s unclear if a low positivity rate means supply is actually adequate to serve everyone who wants a test. Even vaccinated people might be inclined to check in after higher-risk activities — and anyone with a known exposure might need to get tested to return to work, whether or not they think they’re positive.

Nonprofit testing provider: ‘Not enough given the need’

East Kensington resident Phillip Price said he used to see one of Vybe’s mobile testing units in his neighborhood at least once a week, and relied on it for regular screenings. He hasn’t seen it in more than a month, so after attending a big indoor concert last week, the 33-year-old tried to book at local pharmacies or urgent care centers.

He couldn’t find any appointments available when he needed them, so he gave up. “It’s such a laborious task,” Price said. “Every test I’ve taken so far has been negative, but I think it’s just important to be considerate and mindful.”

At Philadelphia FIGHT, a nonprofit that’s been providing testing since the pandemic hit, staff is scrambling to meet demand.

Executive director Jane Shull said after test seekers dropped from 500 people/week last winter to 50/week this spring, she planned to discontinue offering the service altogether. Now her sites are back up to screening about 300 patients each week.

“We’re doing what we have the resources to do, but it’s not enough given the need,” Shull said.

The Philadelphia FIGHT clinics in Germantown, Kensington, Norris Square, and Mifflin Square Park are open a quarter as often as they used to be, with each site offering testing one day a week for two hours.

“It’s stressful,” Shull said. “Part of the reason we’ve gone to the schedule we’ve gone to is it’s hard on our staff.”

Northern Liberties resident Stephanie King, 45, didn’t realize her daughter had COVID symptoms until arriving home one Friday evening a few weeks ago. She could have waited for Monday to get the test at school, but as someone with a high risk of complications, she wanted her daughter to get tested ASAP.

King said she expected to take her daughter to a church down the block that had been testing patients in a tent in the parking lot. But that operation had closed down, so she spent Saturday online, scouring the internet for a same-day appointment.

Finally she saw a cancellation at a drive-thru pharmacy in North Philly, and her daughter tested negative.

“I don’t know how that would’ve worked if I didn’t have a car,” King said. “At this point, there should be easy access to testing all across the city. It has to be easier if we’re going to see the end of this tunnel.”

There aren’t any concrete plans to open new testing sites or develop a more consistent operation in Philadelphia, per Garrow, the health department spokesperson.

“That said, we are always looking for new opportunities to expand our services,” Garrow added, “so there may be expansions or new programs in the future.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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