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COVID testing is up again in Maryland amid delta variant surge, this time in a changed landscape

Late last fall, as the pandemic surged to its greatest height yet in Maryland, the line to receive a COVID-19 test at the Baltimore Convention Center frequently wrapped around the block, sometimes discouraging would-be patients.

In the months since, the testing volume at the downtown Baltimore center and across the state has dropped significantly.

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But with the state at the precipice of yet another wave of COVID-19, this time fueled by the more contagious delta variant, those numbers are rising again. Over the past week, an average of 23,762 Marylanders per day have been tested for COVID-19, compared with 16,898 the last week in July.

This time, though, Maryland’s testing infrastructure is profoundly different than at earlier points of the pandemic.

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Gone are the theme parks, stadiums and fairgrounds that once served winding lines of cars — sites that transformed into vaccination hubs before closing altogether. The state health department listed four state-run sites offering testing this week — the Convention Center, Oriole Park at Camden Yards during Orioles home games, and one site each in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

Several Maryland counties still offer testing at local community centers, health clinics and churches, but much of that infrastructure has moved to doctors’ offices, urgent care centers, hospitals and pharmacies, many of which now offer more accessible, if less accurate, take-home tests.

People on line at the Baltimore Convention Center vaccination site Monday were either seeking a COVID vaccine or PCR test. Several people said they need a recent test to be able to travel. August 16, 2021 p1
People on line at the Baltimore Convention Center vaccination site Monday were either seeking a COVID vaccine or PCR test. Several people said they need a recent test to be able to travel. August 16, 2021 p1 (Amy Davis)

Experts say that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The more it can be integrated into day-to-day life, the more it can be integrated into grocery stores and drugstores and hospitals and doctor’s offices, the easier it’s going to be,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “All of that is a reflection of the fact that COVID is not going anywhere and it is going to be a threat we deal with year in and year out.”

The state’s seven-day average testing positivity rate climbed above the 5% threshold Wednesday for the first time in months. It’s an indicator that the transmission rate of the coronavirus is increasing, and that getting more people tested might be necessary to capture a sufficient number of asymptomatic cases and slow the spread.

On a recent weekday, the line at the Baltimore Convention Center scarcely stretched very far before patients were welcomed inside. Some of those in line were seeking tests that would help them board airplanes or attend college. Others, though, wanted to be tested after high-risk activities like traveling, especially to areas of the country with lower vaccination rates and more widespread cases.

Richard Lee, 25, of Baltimore City speaks about his decision to get a PCR COVID test at the Baltimore Convention Center vaccination and testing site immediately after returning from an extensive train trip around the country, as a precaution before seeing family and friends. August 16, 2021 p8
Richard Lee, 25, of Baltimore City speaks about his decision to get a PCR COVID test at the Baltimore Convention Center vaccination and testing site immediately after returning from an extensive train trip around the country, as a precaution before seeing family and friends. August 16, 2021 p8 (Amy Davis)

Baltimorean Richard Lee, 25, said he returned Aug. 15 from a cross-country trip aboard Amtrak trains that he began in mid-July.

“I was previously vaccinated, and I started this trip before the delta thing really started,” Lee said. “And I traveled through the South, where I know a lot of adults are spreading it.”

Lee said he wanted a test for peace of mind upon his return.

“I had to stop myself from meeting a lot of people,” he said. “People were like, ‘Hey, let’s grab dinner when you come back,’ but I had to put that on hold.”

Come Oct. 1, the state health department will stop testing, vaccination and antibody treatments at the Convention Center as the site prepares to resume its usual business and host a tattoo convention, a comic con and a college fair. Officials say they plan to move testing and vaccination services to another site downtown, although they haven’t said where.

Monoclonal antibody infusions will be provided at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s downtown campus, said David McCallister, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health.

Lee went to the Convention Center after a rapid take-home test from CVS showed he tested negative. He wanted to be sure of his result by getting a more accurate PCR test as well.

”My sister’s not vaccinated, but she’s expecting a baby, so she’s weighing her own pros and cons, and I’ll have to be more cautious around her,” Lee said.

While at-home tests are less effective at detecting COVID infections, especially among people who don’t show symptoms, the draw of waiting minutes, not hours or days, for a result has led to rapid growth in the market for at-home tests. The FDA has approved more than 30 varieties of self-tests, some of which require prescriptions while others can be picked up at local grocery stores or pharmacies.

Some at-home tests require nasal swabs, while others use saliva samples to determine whether someone is infected with COVID-19. The CDC advises that self-tests can be used by anyone with COVID symptoms as well as unvaccinated people who are asymptomatic or were exposed to someone with COVID.

At-home test results are included on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, McCallister said, since they’re reported by the laboratory processing the results (either directly or via uploads) or by an individual’s physician.

Galen Mooney, 27, of Butcher’s Hill, went to the Convention Center for a COVID-19 test after visiting unvaccinated friends who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Mooney said he was vaccinated in February.

“After I left the house that night they said they got their test back and it came back positive” he said. “So, I’m just trying to do the right thing.”

It was frustrating to go through the motions of testing once more after having been vaccinated, Mooney said. It left him wondering about whether the government ought to mandate face masks in certain settings, mandate vaccines for certain activities — or both.

“I just don’t know how many times we have to prove that leaving it up to everybody is not the right decision,” Mooney said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have to come back here a couple more times, and have like another two years of this.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Rose Wagner contributed to this article.

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