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Demand for coronavirus tests in St. Louis surges ahead of Christmas

 A St. Louis County Health Department employee administers a coronavirus test to one of the many people who lined up Wednesday for drive-through tests at the John C. Murphy Health Center in Berkeley.
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
A St. Louis County Health Department employee administers a coronavirus test to one of the many people who lined up Wednesday for drive-thru tests at the John C. Murphy Health Center in Berkeley.

St. Louis-area coronavirus testing sites are seeing an increase in demand as people prepare to travel and attend holiday gatherings, and clinic operators say it may be difficult to get an appointment before the weekend.

Doctors recommend that people make sure they aren’t carrying the virus before seeing older relatives and others who would be at high risk of serious COVID-19 illness.

But several testing sites across the St. Louis region are booked through Christmas Eve.

“We certainly may have had moments where we were experiencing high demand, but I don't remember this abrupt of an increase in demand,” St. Louis County Department of Public Health spokesman Christopher Ave said.

County health clinics have for months offered on-demand testing with no substantial wait time for residents. But as long lines of cars began to wind their way through clinic parking lots this week, it became apparent that residents could not rely on drive-up or walk-in tests.

“I think with the impending holidays and thesurge in cases, I think interest has really spiked in getting tested,” Ave said. “And this is a good thing. But at the moment, our staff has been overwhelmed.”

The county switched to appointment-only testing, and slots are booked until next week, he said.

But there are still places where people can go for tests. At Nomi Health in Grand Center, free PCR and antigen tests were available with no wait on Tuesday afternoon. The pop-up clinic accepts visits by appointment as well as walk-ins.

Total Access Urgent Care, which operates several clinics and testing centers throughout the region, also is seeing an increase in demand leading up to the holiday weekend.

The chain’s first-come, first-served appointment scheduling starts at 6 a.m. for people with symptoms and at midnight for those who want to make an appointment at its designated clinics for people without symptoms.

The chain tested 1,800 people a day for the virus last week, said Ashley Williams, the chain’s vice president of operations. This week, it’s testing more than 2,200 people a day.

“All health care workers right now are just really working incredibly hard hours and trying to squeeze every person in possibly that they can,” she said. “If you go to our website, you'll often see that all the sites are at capacity and are trying to squeeze in every extra person.”

Unlike earlier in the pandemic, clinics now have more than enough testing supplies, Williams said. Instead, there’s not enough time or clinic staff to test everyone who wants an appointment.

It’s still possible for people to get a test before the holiday, she said. Their best bet is to log in early in the morning right as appointments become available each day, similar to buying an in-demand concert ticket. Patients also sometimes cancel appointments, so it’s prudent to check throughout the day if any slots have opened up.

A search of drugstore appointments in the region found few available appointments until after Christmas. As of Wednesday afternoon, the closest available CVS appointment for a person in St. Louis was an hour north in Jerseyville, Illinois.

At-home test kits on Wednesday were hard to find at pharmacy chains. Search results from the Walgreens and CVS websites showed that no rapid, at-home tests were available for online purchase or same-day delivery, but the CVS site indicated tests were available for purchase at just four of 25 locations within nine miles of downtown St. Louis.

A location in Clayton also had one brand of PCR test kit available, for $124 per pack. The tests are more reliable than the rapid-response ones.

Instructions on Walgreens’ site urged users to visit stores to check availability. Some St. Louisans stocked up on tests earlier this week, to prepare for holiday get-togethers.

Arindam Kar, a St. Louis attorney, purchased at-home coronavirus tests at the Walgreens location on Lafayette Avenue earlier this week. They were for his daughter, who returned Tuesday for winter break from her college in New York, where cases are surging because of the omicron variant. She tested negative before flying home, he said, but will test several more times before Saturday, when the family plans to gather with three grandparents in attendance.

“She is going to get tested Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and probably even Saturday morning just to confirm that there is at least no immediate or obvious risk,” Kar said. “Assuming those all are clear, then we will go ahead with our Christmas plans.”

St. Louis residents could still have luck at weekly testing clinics operated by state and local health departments. A list of available clinics is available on the St. Louis Department of Health’s website.

If a person can’t find a test before Christmas, they should assess their risk before going to a holiday gathering, said Ave, of the St. Louis County health department.

“Every individual is unique, and every situation is different,” he said. “The one thing that I would say to anyone is that your assessment of risk should be based on your most vulnerable person that you come in contact with. So if you have a relative who's extremely vulnerable, if there's a gathering where they are … assess that and change your plans.”

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.