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Omicron surge fuels demand for testing in La Plata, Archuleta counties

Public health officials say tests are being returned in 36 to 72 hours, on average
Tarylynn Hurst with COVIDCheck Colorado administers a COVID-19 test at the La Plata County Fairgrounds community testing site on Tuesday. A surge in COVID-19 cases has put pressure on testing sites in La Plata and Archuleta counties, but public health officials say they have adequate tests and results are being returned in 36 to 72 hours. There was almost no line Tuesday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds drive-thru site. (Nathan Van Arsdale/BCI Media)

The omicron variant is sending a crush of people to testing sites and pharmacies across the country as the disease spreads uncontrollably.

But amid testing shortage concerns, community testing in La Plata and Archuleta counties and in Colorado has served as a bright spot.

According to public health officials, La Plata and Archuleta counties and the state have seen a surge in demand for testing, but have not neared capacity or the lengthy turnaround times that can render tests useless.

“At this point in time in our community, individuals who are looking to get tested can get tested and get tested very timely,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health.

COVID-19 cases in Colorado have ballooned in recent weeks to figures never before seen. New cases have numbered in the thousands and broken 10,000 multiple times, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data.

Skyrocketing cases have led to overwhelming demand for tests, both over-the-counter and at community testing sites.

Over-the-counter rapid tests have begun to disappear in Durango with both City Market and Walgreens reporting they were out of stock, according to their websites and phone calls to their pharmacies.

Walmart in Durango had availability on Monday, but no longer had Abbott’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 antigen self-tests on Tuesday, according to its website. The BinaxNOW is the only test Walmart carries in stores. It was back in stock on Wednesday.

While at-home tests have been hard to come by, community testing has remained robust and sites continue to administer tests under the unrelenting pressure.

“The omicron variant, coupled with holiday travel, has created unprecedented demand, and we continue to operate at full capacity,” Joshua Posner, senior director of operations for COVIDCheck Colorado, which contracts with the state for many of its community testing sites, said in an email. “Last week, COVIDCheck Colorado locations administered more than 65,000 tests. For context, our weekly average prior to this surge was 35,000 tests per week.”

COVIDCheck Colorado’s Asher Jaffe checks someone in for a COVID-19 test Tuesday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. COVIDCheck Colorado, a testing contractor for the state, is performing more than 65,000 tests per week, well above its weekly average of 35,000 tests before the omicron surge. COVIDCheck Colorado’s website warns that test results could take up to five days, but San Juan Basin Public Health officials say that the majority of tests are still being returned within two to three days. (Nathan Van Arsdale/BCI Media)

Colorado’s 152 state-sponsored testing sites are performing an average of 23,611 tests per day, said Kristen Petitt Stewart, a CDPHE spokeswoman.

That number is well within the state’s capacity to administer 50,000 tests per day.

SJBPH helps operate two community testing sites in La Plata County at Fort Lewis College and the fairgrounds and one in Archuleta County at Pagosa Springs Medical Center.

Through the delta variant’s surge, the three sites were testing about 4,000 people per week, Jollon said.

The three sites registered more than 5,000 tests the last week of December as omicron spread, according to SJBPH data.

Last week, they conducted almost 9,000 tests, but the sites have not yet neared their limits.

“We have not maxed out our capacity at our local test sites at this point,” Jollon said.

“We feel very lucky to be in a community that has a well-developed capacity for testing that is not overwhelmed yet like we are hearing in many urban areas in Colorado and around the country,” she said.

Testing delays have been another concern of public health officials. Delays can effectively continue to spread the virus as people who are positive continue to go about their lives while waiting for results.

But in La Plata and Archuleta counties and the state at large, results are being returned with only modest delays.

“Our test results typically come back from our community test sites in 36 hours,” Jollon said. “They can take between 36 and 72 hours.”

Weather is often to blame for any delays in testing, not a surge in demand, she said. Data analysis from the state can also add to longer COVID-19 test return times.

“The other issue that we are seeing is with the extremely steep increase of positive cases; the state of Colorado is having some difficulties keeping up with the data to get it back down to the local community,” Jollon said.

Tarylynn Hurst, a tester with COVIDCheck Colorado, displays a COVID-19 specimen collected from the drive-thru community testing site at the La Plata County Fairgrounds on Tuesday. While public officials say Colorado has not yet reached its capacity, they warn the omicron surge could push testing to its limits. On Tuesday, City Market, Walgreens and Walmart were out of at-home rapid tests, according to their websites and phone calls their pharmacies. (Nathan Van Arsdale/BCI Media)

COVIDCheck Colorado’s website warns that the current testing volume is forcing “longer-than-normal turnaround times” with some results delivered in the usual two-to-three day time frame and others taking up to five days to return.

While there may be delays on a case-by-case basis, tests collected this past week at the state’s community sites are being returned after two days on average, which is well within COVIDCheck Colorado’s ideal two-to-three day time frame, Stewart said.

The effects of omicron are still being felt, though. The state’s average test return is up from 1.1 days over the last 10 weeks.

Jollon attributes the resilience of La Plata and Archuleta’s community testing to the state’s testing infrastructure and its foresight.

Colorado’s state lab increased its capacity more than eightfold over the first year of the pandemic, according to Jollon and CDPHE.

The state also contracted with labs around the country so that as different regions of the country experienced COVID-19 surges they could shift Colorado’s tests to places that were less inundated.

“The specimens collected in Colorado either go to the state lab, which has increased its capacity tremendously, or go to different laboratories around the country with an eye for moving them to the part of the country that has the most capacity at any given time,” Jollon said.

“We’re really thankful that the state of Colorado had the foresight to put in extensive infrastructure for community testing and make it widely available and make it free across the state,” she said. “All response to communicable disease starts with surveillance.”

But even as Colorado has weathered the initial testing surge brought on by omicron, public health officials warn that the state’s testing infrastructure could crack.

“At this point, our test sites are able to handle the demand and there are still some rapid tests available in our community,” Jollon said. “But we can’t guarantee through the duration of the omicron surge that will remain true.”

Amid the current testing demand, Posner recommends scheduling testing appointments a few days in advance. While community sites can accommodate walk-ups, people may face long wait times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone with respiratory symptoms follow its COVID-19 isolation guidelines.

According to the CDC’s most-recent guidelines, people who have tested positive or are symptomatic should isolate at home for five days or until their fever resolves. Once their isolation is complete, they should wear a mask around others for another five days.

For those struggling to secure a test or waiting for a test result, Jollon says there’s only one option.

“If you’re symptomatic, stay home,” she said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story and headline described the surge in demand for testing as applying to Southwest Colorado. The surge described by public health officials applies to La Plata and Archuleta counties. The story also did not clarify the locations of the City Markets, Walgreens and Walmart that were out of stock of tests. The five stores are located in Durango.

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