A frustrating hunt for coronavirus tests: Long lines, a lot of driving and anxious waiting

·5 min read
Santa Monica, California-Jan. 3, 2021-At the Covid Testing Today testing site on Broadway in Santa Monica, the wait was at least 45 minutes long even with an appointment on Monday, Jan. 3, 2021. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
At the COVID Testing Today site on Broadway in Santa Monica, the wait was at least 45 minutes long with an appointment on Monday. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Bertha Carrillo is vaccinated with two doses of Pfizer. She rarely ventures from her Santa Ana home apart from her job as a school bus driver. When she does, the 52-year-old religiously wears a mask in indoor public spaces, including her bus.

Carrillo said she’d done her best to keep COVID-19 at bay.

But this year she rang in the New Year in shock, afraid and in quarantine after testing positive for the virus on Dec. 23. Carrillo’s husband fell sick, and her adult children, who live with her, soon followed.

“We haven’t been able to shake it off,” she said.

Carrillo is one among thousands of people who kicked off the New Year without the customary optimism that accompanies early January. In the face of skyrocketing cases in California due to the relentless spread of the Omicron variant, many are starting the first days of 2022 with similar concerns and anxieties as they felt in March 2020: scouring online for N95s and other medical grade-masks, waiting in long lines to get tested and scaling back plans and expectations.

Carrillo had planned to spend the New Year with family. Instead, she spent it caring for herself and her sick husband and son. Upon reflection, she said, she could have done more. She’d put off getting her booster. She plans to do that now.

“I feel that this year [2021] was a lot worse than 2020. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt safe to go out and I ended up getting it,” she said. “I think many more people think it’s safe to go out, but it’s not.”

Carrillo said she’s grateful she was at least vaccinated and believed she would have likely ended up even sicker without it.

On Friday, Carrillo started feeling better and traveled to a Kaiser drive-through testing location in Anaheim. She turned around when she discovered she’d be in line for at least six hours.

She returned at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. The site didn’t open until 9 a.m. and there were already eight cars in front of her. Monday morning, she was still waiting on results.

For days now, testing sites have been overwhelmed. Kaiser Permanente Southern California Region officials said they are doing everything they can to expedite the testing process.

“Due to the national shortage of COVID tests, and the incredibly high demand for testing locally, long wait times are now unfortunately common,” Terry Kanakri, a spokesman for Kaiser Permanente Southern California Region said in a prepared statement. “A major reason for the high demand for testing is that the number of Omicron cases has grown incredibly fast since its discovery just over a month ago, and cases are expected to continue to increase in the next few weeks.”

Thursday at the Kaiser Permanente Meridian Medical Officers in Riverside, hundreds of vehicles waited for testing. The line was already a mile long when the facility opened at 9 a.m., according to news footage.

Later that day, under a small tent at the West Valley YMCA in Reseda, groups of people were being coached on how to self-administer their coronavirus tests. A number of them winced as they stuck the testing probe up their noses.

For some, simply trying to schedule a testing appointment has meant running a gantlet through sometimes dozens of testing sites.

Others hunt down tests in their cars.

“I've been driving around since about 10 o'clock this morning,” said Kevin Shields, of Chatsworth, one of those trying to get tested in Riverside last Thursday. “Some of that was pulled over, and on the internet, and we're all calling each other trying to find places.”

He finally obtained his test around 3:30 p.m. at the YMCA in Reseda.

Shields, who is fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, as well as his coworkers at a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, were frantically seeking tests after another staff member tested positive.

“We had to shut down and get everybody to go out,” he said. “Nobody's been able to find a place, so I just started driving around and there was a tent out here.”

“I work with people with disabilities and a lot of them are very medically fragile, so it's really important to me that I don't get it and pass it on to someone,” he said.

Shields noted that the lengths he went to on Thursday were symptoms of an overwhelmed system.

“We have a great infrastructure at the beginning of the pandemic but when things slowed down, they kind of closed it down,” he said. “And now we're not ready to open it up again.”

On Tuesday morning, the Kaiser Permanente Downey Medical Center testing facility was packed with so many cars that police ended up shutting it down. A sign read “COVID Testing Closed.”

The demand for at-home tests was also reaching a fever pitch; on Tuesday, an at-home test distribution event in Camarillo was canceled before it began when traffic overwhelmed the site.

"There are more cars lined up than can be accommodated and the vehicles are impacting traffic in the area," Ventura County announced at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, a half-hour before the event was set to begin.

The county said another event would be offered "on another date" and noted that it was working to expand its testing capabilities.

Times staff writer Priscella Vega contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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