Drivers line up for blocks for free home test kits from Summit health department as COVID-19 surges

·4 min read
Summit County Public Health worker Marlene Martin asks a driver how many passengers are in her vehicle before handing out free COVID-19 home testing kits on Saturday in Akron.
Summit County Public Health worker Marlene Martin asks a driver how many passengers are in her vehicle before handing out free COVID-19 home testing kits on Saturday in Akron.

Drivers lining up for free COVID-19 home tests flooded West Market Street in Akron for a couple of hours on Saturday morning as the omicron surge caused a traffic headache.

Some drivers winding their way through a line to pick up the self-tests distributed by Summit County Public Health said they waited more than an hour.

The health department had hoped to hand out about 3,400 kits, one per person in each vehicle, from 10 a.m. to noon. But drivers started lining up long before the drive-thru started.

Getting COVID home test 'in case we ever got sick'

Jasmine Penny, a University of Akron student from Willoughby, was more than willing to wait in line for a little peace of mind.

“We wanted to get them in case we ever got sick,” she said. “Around Willoughby, you can’t get a test.”

Chris Barker, Summit County Public Health preparedness supervisor, restocks a bin of COVID-19 test kits during distribution Saturday in Akron.
Chris Barker, Summit County Public Health preparedness supervisor, restocks a bin of COVID-19 test kits during distribution Saturday in Akron.

Penny said she and her friend, Rosa DeFilippo, a UA student from New Philadelphia, wanted the tests on-hand and ready to go if they felt sick. She said family members have gotten ill from recent family events and the tests help confirm a diagnosis.

She anticipated a lot of demand and was ready to spend some time in line.

“It was about a half-hour,” Penny said. “A lot of it was figuring out where to go.”

At least some GPS apps were directing individuals to the back parking lot of Summit County Public Health, where the tests were distributed to drivers. But the line snaked around the front of the building, at times backing onto West Market Street.

An Akron police officer helps keep order on West Market Street as traffic backs up over a half-mile in both directions from the entrance of Summit County Public Health.
An Akron police officer helps keep order on West Market Street as traffic backs up over a half-mile in both directions from the entrance of Summit County Public Health.

Penny said the wait wasn’t as bad as she had feared.

“I thought it was pretty smooth,” she said.

Keith Mills of Akron brought his sons Benjamin, 7, and Henry, 9, to pick up tests. Both boys had already contracted COVID-19 with mild symptoms.

“It wasn’t even a cold,” Henry said. “I was barely sick. I didn’t feel anything.”

A bin of free COVID-19 home test kits ready for distribution.
A bin of free COVID-19 home test kits ready for distribution.

Their mother also contracted COVID-19 and was sicker than her two boys. But Keith Mills said all three recovered quickly and he never caught the coronavirus.

The boys and their parents have all been vaccinated, and Mills said his wife wanted him to pick up the kits so family members could test themselves before visiting the boys’ vulnerable grandparents.

He said an initial traffic headache was cleared up when police closed off access from one side of West Market.

“They had people coming from the West Side and Fairlawn,” he said.

High demand for COVID home tests causes traffic backup

As congestion mounted, police blocked access to the line from the Fairlawn side of the road.

Mills said demand for the test kits was more than he'd anticipated.

“I was surprised that so many people were interested,” he said.

Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said the omicron wave has created widespread demand for the self-test kits.

Summit County Public Health worker Marlene Martin distributes free COVID-19 self-test kits Saturday.
Summit County Public Health worker Marlene Martin distributes free COVID-19 self-test kits Saturday.

“A lot of people want them because there’s a lot of illness in the community,” she said. “We’ve been swamped.”

About noon, Skoda said people started lining up before the recommended time of 9:45 a.m. creating some traffic congestion.

“It’s a big demand, so there are delays,” she said.

Some overeager drivers didn’t help early in Saturday’s drive-thru.

“We’ve seen some really bad behavior,” she said. “People trying to sneak into the line.”

Vaccines still vital despite milder symptoms, health chief says

Despite the recent tsunami of COVID-19 cases, Skoda said, the short- and long-term coronavirus situation may improve soon. For one, the current variant dominating the news is omicron, but its effect on most people appears less severe than other COVID-19 strains.

“Omicron appears to be more like a cold,” she said. “[But] some people get more [symptoms].”

Although omicron may be less severe for most people, it’s still vital to be vaccinated and boosted, she said.

“It will blow through and blow out, but behind [omicron] could be another variant,” she said.

As the pandemic continues, it will likely evolve into a more endemic-style problem, she forecast.

“[What] we’re preparing for is the next stage,” she said.

A Summit County Public Health Department worker distributes free COVID-19 home test kits Saturday in Akron.
A Summit County Public Health Department worker distributes free COVID-19 home test kits Saturday in Akron.

Vaccines, COVID pill, more free home tests on the horizon

She anticipates an annual vaccine tailored to different COVID-19 strains could become the norm. The introduction of monoclonal antibodies (lab-produced molecules that act as substitute antibodies) and the development of antivirals provide treatment options and could help reduce symptoms and hospital time for many.

“In the future, we’ll be able to manage it more efficiently,” she said.

Skoda said Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill should become available in Ohio in the next couple of weeks, although supplies will be limited. Vaccines remain available on demand at many locations.

By noon, much of the traffic had dissipated. The drive-thru closed about 12:30 p.m. with a few hundred kits remaining. Skoda said the health agency would make an announcement Monday on how they will be distributed.

Leave a message for Alan Ashworth at 330-996-3859 or email him at aashworth@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron drivers line up for free COVID test kits as Omicron takes hold

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