Demand for COVID tests soars in Florida amid holiday gatherings and rise of omicron

·6 min read

TAMPA — The spread of the omicron variant and the risks from family gatherings and holiday travel has sent tens of thousands more Floridians to get tested for COVID, federal data shows.

Almost 100,000 new tests were reported to the federal government over a 7-day period through Dec. 15, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. That’s almost double the number of tests reported over a single week at the end of November.

Pharmacies are also reporting a sharp rise in demand for testing appointments and home-test kits with two major pharmacy chains rationing purchases of test kits.

Some of that demand is likely the result of people taking precautions before they visit family over the holidays or those complying with testing requirements mandated for travelers by other countries, said Mary Jo Trepka, a professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Florida International University.

But they likely also include a high number of people who either have COVID symptoms or were in contact with someone who already tested positive. Florida’s 7-day average positivity rate rose from 4.5 percent on Dec. 13 to 11.9 percent over a 7-day period through Tuesday.

“The percentage of people testing who are positive has dramatically increased,” Trepka said. “We are having a clear increase in transmission.”

More people have been turning up at the West Tampa Community Resource Center, the one government-run site operating in Hillsborough County. Just under 800 tests were administered there on Dec. 17, officials said. By Wednesday, that number had soared to more than 2,000.

The arrival of omicron and the holiday season also has put more burden on private sector testing, including pharmacies. Both Walgreens and CVS reported sharp increases in requests for test appointments.

“We are seeing unprecedented demand for testing services. Availability for COVID-19 testing appointments fluctuates daily, and is limited in many areas of the country leading up to the holidays,” Walgreens officials said in a statement.

The company also has put a four-item limit on purchases of COVID-19 test products due to “incredible” demand.

CVS has put a six-item limit on COVID-19 test kits but said customers can still make appointments for in-store testing, though same-day testing options may be limited, said spokesperson Shannon Dillon.

One of those taking a home-test this week was Christie DeNave, a senior director with Florida Blue who noticed tickles in her throat Monday. Her test came back positive.

DeNave, who lives in Orlando, is convinced she caught the virus at the Tampa Bay Lightning game she attended Dec. 16. She is vaccinated and also has had a booster.

“That was probably the first time I’d been out in a while,” she said. “My gut tells me I probably got it there.”

Her local CVS was mostly out of test kits other than the PCR tests, which cost about $200. She was able to find some rapid tests only because a new supply came in.

She got her test result confirmed at Guidewell Emergency Doctors and also received a treatment of monoclonal antibodies.

Downtown Tampa resident Edward Leonard, 42, got tested last week as he wanted to get the booster shot before flying to New York to visit his family for Christmas. The test was to make sure he wasn’t already positive but asymptomatic.

“I’ve seen the rise of omicron and I didn’t want to hurt anybody or put myself in a precarious situation,” he said.

At-home COVID tests are only 60 to 70 percent accurate and typically aren’t reported to the Department of Health, said Dr. Nishant Anand, BayCare’s chief medical officer.

Even so, PCR and rapid COVID-19 tests often require a clinician to administer during an appointment. The accessibility of at-home tests allow people to find out quickly whether they need to self-isolate and take precautions against further spreading the virus, Anand said.

Local hospital leaders said they have yet to see any signs of a major surge in admissions. While the omicron variant is more infectious than previous strains, early evidence suggests that reactions to the new variant may be less severe.

The BayCare hospital system, which includes 15 facilities across Central Florida, reported a 25 percent increase in COVID-19 patients in the last week. Most of them are unvaccinated and in the 30- to 50-year-old range, Anand said.

Dr. Peggy Duggan, chief medical officer at Tampa General Hospital, said it’s still too early to assess omicron’s impact on hospital admissions.

Her hospital has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in COVID-19 patients compared to last week. The vast majority are unvaccinated, she said.

Duggan predicts a surge in cases between Christmas and New Year’s or shortly after the New Year, when families return from holiday celebrations and travel. Even so, she said, a crisis in cases is not inevitable.

Rather than waiting for a spike in cases to start taking precautions, Duggan urges people to make wise public health choices now to mitigate a future surge. She said people should get the booster or get vaccinated. If gathering outside is not possible, wear masks indoors.

“We don’t have to wait for the crisis to look terrible to make these choices,” Duggan said.

AdventHealth’s West Florida Division, which includes hospitals in seven counties, reported 75 COVID-19 patients as of Friday, a nominal increase from the previous week but far below the 650 it dealt with during the delta surge this summer.

Dr. Vincent Hsu, executive director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiologist, said he expects families will gather for the holiday but urged those with symptoms to get tested and to protect others by social distancing and wearing medical grade masks or double masking.

“I know this is not the holiday season that we wished could have occurred. I wish it were under sort of different circumstances,” he said.

Free PCR and rapid COVID testing is available at the Tyer Temple United Methodist Church N. Sanchez Street & E. 26th Ave. in East Tampa. The site is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. except on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

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How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccines for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

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