CUMBERLAND — Despite some hiccups early in the week, state and local health officials say that residents can expect a smooth process moving forward when they get tested for COVID-19 at the Allegany County Fairgrounds.
The free site first opened to the public last week and operates on Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and from 2-7 p.m. on Mondays. Last Wednesday, 417 people were tested, and on Friday, 580. On Monday, 535 individuals were tested.
When the site was open for its first round of evening hours on Monday, county Health Officer Jenelle Mayer said Wednesday, the volume of residents and resultant long lines led them to begin turning away folks who wanted a test around 5:30 p.m.
“We had so many cars we had to shut the gates a couple hours early just to get through the people who were in line,” Mayer said. “But people shouldn’t expect that anymore. I think because it was the first night we had evening hours, a lot of people came out because it was the first day it could come after work. Now it’s more steady, and they can expect shorter lines.”
Many folks who’ve come through have been concerned about exposure, Mayer said. Health officials tell people to expect to wait 2-5 days for test results. Those who may have had close contact with someone who is positive should isolate while waiting for their own results, Mayer said.
“We have plenty of supplies; we have plenty of capacity,” Mayer said. “Except for the one day we had to close our gates early we’ve been able to see everyone who comes.”
The volume of residents who have shown up is higher than expected, Mayer said. Past community testing events in the summer averaged around 300 to 400 people, Mayer said, while the last few days of testing have averaged 500 a day.
It’s hard to say why cases are spiking so drastically, not just here but through the region, Mayer said. Many other rural areas have been similarly afflicted of late, she noted.
When the pandemic first began, Mayer said, the testing capacity available was adequate for keeping up with the demand at the time. Jon Weinstein, the testing task force lead for the Maryland Department of Health, echoed that capacity was a factor, and noted as well that the case rate, positivity rate and and rate of testing compared to the population also play a role.
“As the case rate and positivity rate start ticking up, that’s when we start keeping an eye out and talking to each jurisdiction to make sure they’re prepared for what’s going on, and then we assess whether or not to open a site.”
The state health department received a call from county officials about opening a site on a Thursday about two weeks back, Weinstein said, and by the following Wednesday it was up and running.
“It was just unbelievable; a testament to the team here,” Weinstein said. “I would say this is a model for all the different parts coming together.”
“It was a miracle,” Mayer added.
They’re also working on adding similar sites in rural jurisdictions around the state currently, Weinstein said, hopefully including a few more in Western Maryland and some on the Eastern Shore. There are more than 225 testing sites statewide, Weinstein said.
“As the testing task force lead, I’m comfortable that we have good capacity, but we’re not waiting,” said Weinstein. “We’re proactively trying to expand our capacity at existing sites, and then we’re looking for locations for new sites.”
They hope to be able to shut the site down as soon as possible, Weinstein said, because that would indicate that “there isn’t a surge and the numbers are being managed.” Then and only then will they close it, Weinstein said.
The state’s “buying spree” early in the pandemic has been helpful thus far, Weinstein said, as they try to maintain 60 to 90 days’ worth of supplies at a time, and that local health departments are well-stocked as well. The personnel resources are a larger demand, he said.
“To be clear, resources are not plentiful,” Weinstein said. “It’s a personnel-intensive activity, and bless these people because they’re putting themselves at risk. They’re covered in PPE, but they’re still putting themselves out there.”
Mayer said the majority of the workers there are from the local health department, though they have received aid from the state as well as a group of paramedics from Allegany County’s Department of Emergency Services. They need about 25 to 30 people to man all five lanes for cars, Mayer said.
UPMC Western Maryland will also soon begin offering drive-up testing on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at the urgent cares in Frostburg and Cumberland, Mayer said.
“That means every day of the week, there’s somewhere someone can go to drive up,” Mayer said.
It was not immediately clear whether those tests were being offered for free.