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Coronavirus testing site in Baltimore County quickly reaches capacity in 1st day of testing those without symptoms

The free Coronavirus testing site at Maryland State Fairgrounds reached capacity shortly after opening Thursday morning.

The free drive-in coronavirus testing site at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium reached its 1,000-patient capacity in less than an hour Thursday, an indication of the high demand on the first day the state allowed people without symptoms or a doctor’s order to be tested.

The line of cars that snaked out of the parking lot and onto York Road Thursday morning “speaks to the incredible need out there in the community,” Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said.

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After initially limiting testing to only those patients with serious symptoms, Maryland is now seeking to allow more residents to be tested, despite an ongoing shortage of test kits and lab capacity to process them in the state and across the nation.

“We are certainly moving in the right direction,” said Olszewski, a Democrat. “We’re going to see significantly more testing available in Baltimore County and across the state.”

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Gov. Larry Hogan expanded the state’s testing Tuesday with an order allowing people without symptoms but who may have been exposed to the virus to be tested without a doctor’s order at select state sites. Some people who lined up and got tested Thursday said they had no reason to believe they’d been exposed.

Hogan and Maryland Health Secretary Bobby Neall are “very much committed to improving and increasing the amount of testing” both in Baltimore County and statewide, said Dr. Jinlene Chan, assistant Maryland health secretary.

Mike Ricci, spokesman for the Republican governor, tweeted that the state had offered Baltimore County 1,000 more tests for the Timonium testing site, but the county “determined the site was at capacity.”

Most of those who made it into the fairgrounds parking lot before the gates closed spent hours in their cars, waiting to be ushered through the drive-in testing clinic. Many scrolled idly on their phones, a few read books and some even opened their sunroofs and stood up to try to see how things were moving and when a police officer would call their row forward.

The nose-swab tests Thursday were to be analyzed by LabCorp, a North Carolina-based diagnostic company, and results were expected in 24 to 48 hours, officials said.

When Dagory Roberson pulled up to the fairgrounds around 10 a.m., there were about 30 or 40 vehicles in front of him and many more soon piled in behind, he said. He read his copy of “Black Bibliophiles and Book Collectors” and sipped water he brought until being tested around 1:30 p.m., he said.

The testing site could have been coordinated “a little bit better,” said Robertson, a 67-year-old who lives in Towson.

A retired U.S. Postal Service employee, Roberson is in an at-risk age group for COVID-19, and he said he suffers from diabetes, arthritis and hypertension. He’s had a dry cough for a while, he said, and wanted to get it checked out.

“I thought it was prudent for me to get tested,” Roberson said.

Jacquie Martin and her daughter, Tiffani, arrived in Timonium around 8:45 a.m. and weren’t finished being tested until around noon.

The 62-year-old Woodstock woman and her 27-year-old daughter don’t have COVID-19 symptoms or a reason to believe they’d been exposed, but they wanted to be tested for their peace of mind before visiting Martin’s newborn baby granddaughter, she said.

“We’re still going to wear masks,” she said, per her doctor’s advice. “We just wanted to make sure.”

Martin, a program manager for a leadership development and coaching business, whiled away the time on a work conference call, doing some coloring in an adult coloring book and reviewing the mail-in ballots she received for the upcoming election.

Her advice to those who visit testing sites? “Take something to do, 'cause you’re going to be in the car for a minute," she said. "Be prepared to sit for a couple hours.”

Despite the wait, Martin praised the county and state officials running the testing site.

"It was very organized,” Martin said. “They did a great job.”

Absent a vaccine or cure, more testing and continued social distancing are the county’s best tools for fighting the pandemic, said Dr. Gregory Branch, health officer for Baltimore County.

“We have no cure, we have no treatment and we have no vaccine at this particular time. But we do have social distancing and we do have testing," Branch said. "We’d like to test as many people as we can so that we will be able to refrain from people getting this disease.”

Expanding testing will give the county and the state a better sense of who has the disease and who doesn’t — a key metric that will guide officials as they consider when it will be safe to relax restrictions and reopen restaurants and nonessential businesses, Olszewski said.

“Positivity rates is one of the most important factors we have out there," he said. "As a state, unfortunately, we’ve lagged behind most of the other states in this country. But this is a huge step forward.”

Marilyn and Robert King, a retired couple in Woodlawn who also sought testing for peace of mind, talked and listened to the radio for three hours in the parking lot before their row was ushered over to the testing station next to the fairgrounds’ Cow Palace.

While getting tested was “worth the wait,” Marilyn King said, she wished they had packed a lunch.

“The wait was worse than the test,” the 64-year-old said. “I would just tell people to pack your patience.”

The state will offer drive-in testing beginning at 10 a.m. Friday at its vehicle emissions inspection stations in Glen Burnie, 721 E. Ordnance Road, and in Hyattsville, 7401 Jefferson Ave.

The Timonium testing site will open again Tuesday at 10 a.m. Those who were unable to get tested Thursday are asked to call the Baltimore County COVID-19 Hotline at 410-887-3816.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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