As COVID spikes in hot spots in New York state, city dwellers and surrounding areas are seeking out testing at unprecedented levels.
Although it's promising that people are heeding public health experts' advice that widespread testing is critical to controlling new infections, rapidly rising requests and positivity rates are alarming to providers.
"We're seeing a huge increase in demand for testing in the last couple of weeks," said Dr. Scott Hayworth, president and CEO of CareMount Medical. "Our urgent-care centers are very, very busy."
Although CareMount has an in-house lab that can process more than 2 million specimens per year, it is still limited by the amount of Covid testing supplies—specifically reagents—it can get, Hayworth said. Currently CareMount can complete about half of its COVID tests in-house, with same-day results. The remainder are being outsourced to large, national labs and have a two- to three-day turnaround time, he said.
People are increasingly seeking out testing because numbers have ticked up locally and across the country, he said, and they might have been exposed to someone who has the disease or might want to travel for the holidays.
CareMount has emailed its roughly 665,000 patients since the early days of the pandemic to keep them informed of when they should come in for testing and other steps they should take to minimize risks.
Dr. Christina Johns, senior medical adviser in New Hyde Park at PM Pediatrics, a nationwide provider of pediatric urgent care, said relaying information to patients is an important part of Covid testing.
"I think one of the best things that we can do is to educate the community so that we can optimize testing," Johns said.
People who think they might have been exposed to the coronavirus on a Tuesday morning, for instance, might decided to seek out testing that afternoon, she said. If someone is asymptomatic and has been exposed, however, the right thing to do is to quarantine and then obtain testing four to eight days after the exposure.
"While there are some institutions and school districts that are accepting rapid antigen tests for a return to activities or school clearance, the best use for the rapid tests is for patients who have symptoms," Johns said.
Early in the pandemic, PM Pediatrics expanded testing to the entire family of its child patients. It continues to do so, and Johns said the latest testing numbers are concerning.
In the past week the amount of COVID tests the company has done has doubled, and in the past month the positivity rate of those tests has jumped from 1% to nearly 5%.
She attributed some of the dramatic uptick in testing to a general increase in illnesses as the weather has turned colder, as well as potential exposures during Halloween activities.
CityMD—which has more than 120 locations in the metropolitan area—last week sent a letter to patients noting that it will begin closing all its sites 90 minutes early because of increasingly long lines for COVID testing.
Dr. Andrew Wallach, ambulatory care chief medical officer at New York City Health and Hospitals and chief medical officer of the city's Test and Trace Corps, said tracking data to identify hot spots has helped to bolster testing capacity.
"Based on that data, we then are able to put our mobile testing units in those particular areas to supplement any brick-and-mortar testing that may already be occurring in those areas," Wallach said. "I can't overemphasize the importance of making sure we are getting folks tested."
Providers are now better able to take care of people than in the early days of the pandemic, Hayworth said.
"But still people are dying," he noted. "One death is one death too many."
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's New York Business.