The demand for coronavirus testing will likely continue to outstrip appointment availability over the next few weeks in Los Angeles County, even as officials scramble to expand capacity amid record-high case increases.
No appointments are available the rest of this week countywide, including at locations run by the city, county and state, as well as at private clinics and pharmacies usually included in the directory on L.A. County’s scheduling website, said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s director of health services.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the county website had no option to schedule a test, and the map of locations only showed those run by the county or city.
The county will typically open appointments for the coming week by the weekend before. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said scheduling will open up Thursday for new Saturday appointments at city sites.
Ghaly said testing has been at capacity the past few weeks due to closures over the Fourth of July weekend — including a four-day halt to services at the city’s massive Dodger Stadium site — and a spike in people seeking a test.
“There’s a broad desire for individuals to get tested to know if they might have COVID, to know if they might have been exposed,” she said in a Wednesday afternoon news briefing.
Testing access is not being limited by a shortage in test kits, according to Ghaly — although she said the supply chain may become increasingly constrained as other states expand their capacity.
Meanwhile, more people are being treated for COVID-19 at L.A. County hospitals than at any other point in the pandemic. And the average daily case increase has jumped from 1,300 at the beginning of June to 2,400 this week, said Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director.
“This daily average paints a very clear picture of what has been happening over the last few weeks, which is a sharp increase in community transmission,” she said.
Officials are working to meet demand by adding new appointment slots, both through increased staffing and extended hours. And plans are in the works to open around eight more county-run testing sites in the next two or three weeks, Ghaly said.
The county plans to place the new locations in poorer areas and in communities of color, which continue to experience higher mortality rates and lower access to testing.
“The data is alarming,” Ferrer said. “The fact that we have not been able to narrow this gap is a cause of concern, and it means that we need to redouble all of the efforts to make sure that access to testing is there.”
Health officials are also continuing their efforts to shift testing into more primary care offices and clinics, in part to have private insurance cover the cost of more screenings. California ordered all public and commercial insurance plans to cover the entire cost of the tests in March.
Funding from the state and the federal government will be critical in the weeks ahead as the county grapples with supply chain concerns and reimbursement issues, Ghaly said.
The health services director said Angelenos can help lessen the strain on testing by seeking an appointment only if they have symptoms of the respiratory illness, live or work in a high-risk setting, or if they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive. This differs by guidance adopted by the city at its locations, where anyone can get tested, even if they’re asymptomatic and have no known exposure.
“As we face what’s ahead, it’s important for us to consider the role of testing in the fight against COVID, and really think about who needs to be tested,” she said.
Ghaly conceded that coronavirus patients are most infectious before they experience symptoms, and some spread the virus despite never having symptoms.
But she said widespread testing among the general population is “really not feasible or realistic” due to current lab capacity in the U.S. Plus, current testing has its limits. For example, the virus can develop in the hours after someone takes a test, and they could be infected despite getting a negative result.
“This is not a sustainable testing approach,” she said.
Ghaly said a 15-minute antigen test approved Monday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is “promising,” but questions remain about its reliability and the supply chain availability.
A negative COVID-19 test should not change how you interact with people outside your household, she added.
“I can’t reassure you that you won’t be positive tomorrow or the day after that, given that a negative test should never be used as a free pass to engage in social activities that aren’t otherwise recommended,” she said. “And it’s not a ticket that would allow others to think that they’re safe to interact with you. It is not safe.”