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COVID-19 test demand spikes in Orange County during Omicron surge

Melanie Send administers a COVID-19 test at the Covid Clinic at the Westminster Mall on Tuesday, Jan. 4.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The Omicron variant has caused panic and frustration over COVID-19 testing in Orange County as the coronavirus pandemic approaches its two-year mark here.

Covid Clinic, a nationwide network of COVID-19 testing sites based in Huntington Beach that offers about 25 sites countywide, announced Tuesday it has surpassed three million tests administered since the pandemic began.

Covid Clinic chief executive Matt Collins said in a phone interview that staffing issues, not test shortages, are the biggest issue for the organization. It has been serving more than 50,000 patients per day nationwide.

“It varies by time of day and day of the week,” Collins said. “Mondays are typically the busiest, and mornings and afternoons,” he said. “At this time, we’ve tried many measures to mitigate patient waiting times. We’ve reduced appointment slots. We’ve put on our website that locations are by appointment only. The reason we’ve done that is that we’re serving 500 to 1,000 patients a day at many of these locations, despite having fewer appointment slots open. But that doesn’t stop people that desperately need these services from coming.

“It’s a challenge for all COVID-19 testing service providers right now, and we’re not immune to that.”

Collins said the Covid Clinic is in talks with several Orange County cities, including Costa Mesa, about opening larger locations and supporting the infrastructure with traffic control and city police.

“Over the last 10 days, it’s come to the point where…all testing locations are overwhelmed with demand,” he said. “As far as demand for testing goes, we’ve been doing this since the beginning of the pandemic, and we’ve never seen demand so high for these services. It’s creating these circumstances that are more extreme than they’ve ever been.”

Covid Clinic has 15-minute rapid antigen tests available for purchase online.

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported that between Dec. 23 and 29, the seven-day average COVID-19 case rate in the county jumped from 10.8 to 19 per 100,000 people. The average number of daily COVID-19 cases rose from 348 to 614, and the positivity rate jumped from 3.3 to 5.4 percent.

Camilla Morales administers a COVID-19 test to Thand Trinh at the Covid Clinic at the Westminster Mall on Tuesday, Jan. 4.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Those who need a free test can request one online at ochealthinfo.com/COVIDtest, or call the county’s COVID hotline Monday through Friday at (714) 834-2000.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley has been trying to get the word out about testing options. She said a clinic at Orange Coast College will have home test kits available this week; the clinic runs Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Additionally, Hoag Health Services is offering rapid tests in Terminal B of John Wayne Airport on weekdays. The cost is $139.

“We’re just having trouble saturating the community with the information,” Foley said. “I’m actually working with the healthcare agency to do a text blast to everybody who has a cellphone in the county ... [but] I feel like I only post about this. It’s becoming all I talk about.

“I just can’t believe two years later we’re all still talking about this,” Foley continued. “A year ago, we were all excited because the vaccines were out ... And now we’re still trying to get people vaccinated. We’re dealing with testing challenges because not enough people got vaccinated. They had a whole year to get vaccinated. It’s very frustrating.”

Melanie Send administers a COVID-19 antigen test to a patient at the Covid Clinic at the Westminster Mall.
Melanie Send administers a COVID-19 antigen test to a patient at the Covid Clinic at the Westminster Mall on Tuesday, Jan. 4.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Foley has posted a graphic listing all COVID-19 testing sites in District 2, and she said she’s working with the OCHCA on putting together a similar graphic for all of Orange County.

Foley isn’t the only one frustrated. Newport Beach resident Ruth Kobayashi said her family has been healthy, but she has been working on buying at-home rapid antigen tests just to have them in reserve if needed. Plenty were available when her daughters came home for the holidays, but she has tried in recent days to purchase them with less success.

An online order from Walmart was canceled Sunday morning, about an hour before it was scheduled to be delivered, and she said Costco is also sold out online. She went to a physical Costco location in Tustin on Tuesday without luck.

Camilla Morales prepares a COVID-19 test at the Covid Clinic at the Westminster Mall on Tuesday, Jan. 4.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I’ll treat this like we did toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic,” Kobayshi said. “I will go online at multiple hours daily hoping I might hit a window when they get some in ... For me, being over 60, how many times do I want to go run around to a CVS or a Walgreens around the general public? Do I really want to do that, even though I’m double [vaccinated] and boostered?

"[The at-home test] isn’t a solution to everything, but it’s a great tool. It’s really a shame that a good tool in the toolbox is so hard to get.”

Helen Reynolds is a junior at Aquinas College in Michigan. The Huntington Beach native flies back to school Wednesday, but admitted that she’s apprehensive about doing so during the Omicron surge, though she’s asymptomatic.

“I’ve heard of about five friends just over winter break who have tested positive,” she said. “It’s scaring me how many students are traveling at this time without access to tests. With this variant, I know it’s not going to affect me as much as a 21-year-old, but I’m just more afraid of spreading it to people who would have more severe repercussions.”

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