covid testing

Examining Why Bay Area COVID Testing Sites Struggle to Meet Demand

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Many Bay Area residents have experienced firsthand how difficult it has become to book an appointment for a COVID test.

In the South Bay, some are finding it can take days, if not weeks, to get an appointment. County testing sites are overwhelmed and there is fear not all health providers are pulling their own weight to help meet the high demand.

"It gets frustrating," said Jillian Javier, who was getting a COVID test Thursday at the Santa Clara County fairgrounds. "But a week was the soonest appointment I could get."

On Thursday morning, patients who tried to book an appointment with Santa Clara County received a notification that none were available.

"Oh, it's extremely difficult," said Linda Ortega, a Kaiser Permanente patient.

Oretega's situation may help explain why the sites are so backed up. She should be getting tested through her provider, Kaiser, but said getting an appointment is virtually impossible.

"We resorted to just going to the county to the fairgrounds," Ortega said. "I went as far as Morgan Hill the other day just to get a test."

The fear is many Kaiser patients like Ortega are choosing the county because their own provider is not doing its part. The result? An overwhelmed county testing system.

Numbers obtained by NBC Bay Area show Santa Clara County sees a 15% of patients in the region, but in the last six months it provided more than 20% of testing.

Kaiser sees 31% of patients in Santa Clara County, but provided over 12% of testing.

Meanwhile, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, or Sutter Health, sees more than 16% of county patients, but provided just over 2% of all COVID testing.

"If I've been exposed I don't want to wait two weeks to get an appointment or even five days," Ortega said. "I want to know now."

In a statement, Kaiser said in part they are struggling with overwhelming demand and are now processing 20,000 tests per day and continue to work to expand testing. (See Kaiser's full statement at the end of this article.)

Sutter Health said its capacity is limited by high demand, but said the Palo Alto Medical Foundation doubled appointment for testing and boosters over the past three weeks. (See Sutter Health's full statement at the end of this article.)

Santa Clara County must now decide if it wants to follow San Francisco's lead and threaten to find medical providers who do not live up to their testing responsibilities.

Kaiser Permanente provided the following statement Thursday:

The omicron variant spreads much faster than prior versions of this virus, and in just a month’s time has come to impact nearly every aspect of society, at unprecedented levels. Kaiser Permanente and its teams are focused on testing, delivering vaccines, and caring for members and people in our communities who need treatment, including hospitalization.

We are currently processing 20,000 tests per day and administering over 80,000 vaccinations each week here in Northern California, while caring for an increase in patients who are sick with this virus. As part of our work to meet the increased testing demand over the past two weeks we taking actions to expand our capacity, including securing more home test kits which are so limited at this time.

Like all organizations, we are being challenged by the prevalence of this variant and its ability to infect even some who are fully immunized. As a result, our staffing levels are also being challenged. The last 24 months of this pandemic have been an incredibly challenging and stressful time to work on the front lines of health care. We are extremely grateful for our frontline health care workforce, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring. We want to thank our staff, who demonstrate resilience, expertise and compassion every day. We object to any suggestion that our front line health care workers — who are at the heart of Kaiser Permanente — are not doing their part.

Kaiser Permanente provides no-cost diagnostic testing for COVID-19 for our members. Testing is available at most Kaiser Permanente locations. Currently, Kaiser Permanente provides reimbursement for the cost of COVID-19 diagnostic testing performed at external licensed, independent facilities such as retail locations or private labs.

We continue to urge all people to get their COVID-19 vaccination and booster when eligible, and to get a flu shot. Most people with COVID-19 symptoms can recover at home – we recommend staying home if you are sick, unless symptoms worsen and you are in need of medical or emergency care. More information about COVID-19 symptoms and care is available at kp.org.

Sutter Health provided the following statement on Thursday:

Sutter’s testing capacity is limited due to high demand. There are many options for COVID-19 testing including licensed retail and community sites and at-home antigen tests. If you test positive with an at-home antigen test and have mild or moderate symptoms, please stay home. You should assume you have COVID-19 and isolate according to CDC guidance. We have increased our overall testing capacity, for example in Santa Clara County the Palo Alto Medical Foundation doubled appointment availability for both COVID testing and COVID boosters over the past three weeks.

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