More Tampa Bay residents are getting coronavirus tests, despite lack of mega-sites

·3 min read

Coronavirus testing rates are climbing again in Florida as the state stares down a surge propelled by the virulent delta variant and the refusal of nearly half of its population to get vaccinated.

The number of people getting tested had been declining since January, but has increased over the past month. Last week, the state tested around 80,000 to 90,000 people per day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about the same number who were being tested late last summer.

Testing volume increased more than 20 percent in the week ending July 24 in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando counties. In Pasco County, it grew by more than 30 percent.

Testing in the Tampa Bay area is available mainly through CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, urgent care facilities, doctors’ offices and Quest Diagnostics locations, including those in Walmart stores. Federal law requires that testing be free. The departments of health in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco maintain lists of testing sites on their websites.

But gone are the state-run testing sites in those counties, including the massive drive-thru locations at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, that operated during the pandemic’s worst months. According to the Florida Department of Health’s website, the Tampa Bay region is the state’s only major metro area without state testing sites.

The Department of Health did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Despite the reduction in state-run sites, there doesn’t seem to be a problem statewide with testing capacity, said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida. He’s more concerned about the public’s behavior after a few months of vaccine-induced optimism.

“We have a desperate desire to get back to what we thought was normal before January 2020, and we’re not willing to go back,” he said. “So testing becomes an inconvenience for people rather than a necessity.”

Case-positivity rates remain high statewide — more than 16 percent over the last available seven-day period, according to the CDC — and also in the Tampa Bay area. The rate indicates high community spread, but Wolfson said the numbers also suggest that many people are getting tested only if they feel sick. Earlier in the pandemic, they may have sought testing routinely or out of caution if they’d been exposed.

Still, he acknowledged, the shift away from free, drive-thru mass-testing sites presents possible barriers. Though federal law still ensures that testing is free for everyone, getting a test could be hard for people who can’t leave work during the day. And many locations, including the pharmacy chains, require appointments. (A CVS spokesperson said the chain hadn’t seen a substantial change in testing demand, and a Walgreens spokesperson said it continues to meet demand in Florida.)

The presence of mass-testing sites also made it easy to know where to go for a test, Wolfson said, and losing them could create a psychological barrier: Out of sight, out of mind. He said he thinks it’s unlikely that the state or federal government will ramp up testing efforts any time soon, especially as vaccines keep the death rate near the lowest it’s been in the past year.

“As long as the death rate remains low, the incentives for public policy and behavioral change are going to be minimal,” he said. “Unless people are dropping dead like flies, you don’t attract that kind of attention.”

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