Travis Acton and his wife stopped by the Baltimore Convention Center around 11:15 a.m. Wednesday for COVID-19 testing, but they didn’t stay long.
The line of people waiting for tests was just too lengthy, Acton said.
“If we don’t have the coronavirus, it seems like we’re almost more likely to be exposed to it in this huge crowd,” Acton said.
The pair sought tests after possible exposure to the virus, which is once again spreading rapidly across Maryland, with an average of nearly 2,000 new cases reported each day — more than at any other time during the pandemic. The state reported a record-high 2,910 cases Thursday.
And Acton’s experience is becoming more common. As cases surge, cold and flu season begins, and Thanksgiving nears, more Marylanders are seeking tests because of exposure to the virus, upper respiratory symptoms and desires to visit family members for the holidays, experts say.
The state reported a record high number of tests for a single day Thursday — nearly 44,000 — as did five individual counties, including Harford, Montgomery and Prince George’s.
At the Convention Center testing site, which is among the state’s most popular, providers administered the most daily tests ever Wednesday: 1,527, according to Michael Schwartzberg, spokesman for the University of Maryland Medical System, which helps run the testing facility and the field hospital at the convention center.
“I would say since June, the overall average is around 900, 950, but really in November — since this spike has really begun — we’re averaging over 1,200 patients per testing day,” said Dr. Chuck Callahan, vice president of population health at the University of Maryland Medical Center and co-director of the field hospital.
Still, most patients receive their test results in 48 hours, Callahan said.
The convention center’s testing area recently moved indoors, but the queue of patients still forms outdoors to ensure that too many people aren’t in the building at once, Callahan said. Security staff help guide patients and enforce social distancing guidelines, he said.
“People are waiting far longer than we would want them to,” Callahan said. “We are continuing to make modifications on the way we do things in order to get people through more quickly.”
Next week, the Convention Center will offer testing on Monday and Wednesday, but the week after, testing will be offered every Monday through Friday, with new time slots on Tuesday and Thursday — 2 p.m. until 8 p.m.
“We would like to try and make it available for those who have to work and can’t get there during a work day,” Callahan said.
Long wait times are far from universal. Those who book appointments at testing facilities — and those who show up at just the right time — can finish in as little as 15 minutes, say some who got tests. But as more people come into contact with the virus and officials encourage more groups to seek tests, such quick turnarounds become a bit harder to achieve.
During his COVID-19 news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan urged Marylanders to seek tests to protect their loved ones as the holiday season approaches.
“If you are a college student planning on returning home, get a test. If you are planning to spend any time around your grandparents, get a test. If you are returning from any out-of-state travel, get a test,” Hogan said.
Health officials are urging patients to isolate while they wait for the results of their tests if they fear they’ve been exposed or are experiencing symptoms.
Negative tests don’t necessarily mean patients don’t have the virus, as individuals may not test positive until several days after their exposure. In other words, negative tests right before Thanksgiving don’t guarantee a COVID-free Turkey Day.
“You can’t test out of quarantine,” said Della Leister, Baltimore County’s deputy health officer.. “People don’t understand that. They think they get that get-out-of-jail-free card with a negative test, and they’re free to go. And depending upon why they were tested, that’s not really accurate.”
The demand for tests is burgeoning in counties around the state, at both public and private testing sites, including those at MedStar hospitals, urgent care centers and pop-up tents.
“It’s hard to keep up with the capability to do that, because … some of the material to do the testing is limited, especially the reagents,” said Dr. Stuart Bell, the chief medical officer at Medstar Union Memorial Hospital.
At Timonium Fairgrounds, a popular Baltimore County testing site, providers administered the most daily tests ever Tuesday — 949.
“The highest day we’ve had at the fairgrounds before that was back in May. And that was 781. So it has definitely picked up,” Leister said.
The increased demand has resulted in a slight slowdown in turnaround time for results in the county, she said.
“Probably about two to three months ago, we were looking at a two- to three-day turnaround,” Leister said. “I would say now turnaround could be up to four.”
There are over 230 testing sites in Maryland, about 45 of which receive some support from the state health department, said department spokesperson Charlie Gischlar. Last month, the state reopened vehicle emissions stations that had been used for drive-thru testing. There are no plans to use these sites for testing again, Gischlar said.
The state opened its first testing site in Allegany County in Western Maryland on Nov. 11. The virus has been spreading rapidly there. Allegany’s seven-day average case rate per 100,000 people of 130.65 dwarfs every other jurisdiction statewide. The statewide average is 31.66 per 100,000.
Dr. Jackie Palaisa, an orthodontist in Frostburg, said she waited about an hour and a half at the fairgrounds for a test Friday morning.
“There had been no testing in our area unless you really were symptomatic and wanted to go pay for it,” Palaisa said. “Since they had this, I was like: Well, I’d kind of like to see because obviously I’m at risk. I’m like putting my hand in like 60 mouths a day.”
On Monday, the testing site, which was supposed to be open until 7 p.m., stopped letting new people in at 5:30 p.m. because too many cars were in line, county residents said. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Cumberland is poised to offer testing on the days the fairgrounds doesn’t, in order to supplement the site, Weinstein said.
Will Coburn, a 19-year-old Frostburg State University student, said he’s gotten tested at the new site several times. Before the site was opened at the Allegany County Fairgrounds, he’d often drive to neighboring Washington County in search of free testing.
Coburn, who takes all of his courses online, said he tries to get tested frequently, since he suffers from a heart condition. But lately, he’s sought tests because of concerns that family members he’d been in close contact with had been exposed to the virus.
In the spring, case rates in Allegany County were fairly low. But this fall, more rural counties in Maryland and across the country are being hit as hard as urban areas, and residents are feeling the effects.
“It’s hitting closer to home,” Coburn said. “Before — in the springtime — I didn’t know anybody that had had it at all. My family still took it very seriously. But there were no scares up until this month.”