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How bad is this Covid third wave? Lines around the block for testing, people turned away

Cars line up at the Providence Southwest Washington Covid-19 drive-up testing site in Hawks Prairie near Olympia.
Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Cars line up at the Providence Southwest Washington Covid-19 drive-up testing site in Hawks Prairie near Olympia.

On a recent rainy morning, a long line of cars snaked around the block at Providence Southwest Washington’s drive-through testing site near Olympia.

“I’m in awe,” said Irene Wood who sat at the wheel of her Prius, mask on, having just been tested. “It’s awful and it’s amazing there’s this many people being tested.”

This was Wood’s second trip to the testing site in a week. Her first test came back negative. But then she hugged her daughter who had previously tested positive.

“That was a silly thing on my part,” Wood said, adding that she wasn’t experiencing any symptoms. “I’m getting tested today because I need to be sure.”

Both times Wood came to this testing site, it was a long wait. For her second visit, Wood said she arrived around 7 a.m, two-and-a-half hours before opening. She wasn’t alone.

On a recent day, 200 cars had lined up by 11:30 a.m. and the staff had to start turning people away because testing capacity had been reached for the day. On some days, the wait to get tested can stretch to five hours.

“We have easily probably doubled or tripled our volume out here,” said Lisa Humphrey, the nurse in charge of the testing site, which also serves people who need a Covid test prior to surgery or other medical procedures.

When the site first opened in March, a busy day was 100 cars. Recently, Humphrey said, they broke their one day record with 352 cars coming through the testing line in a single day. 

Staff at the site noticed upticks in traffic after the Fourth of July and Labor Day. But in recent weeks there’s been a dramatic spike in demand.

The surge in people wanting to get tested comes as the state, and the nation, experience what’s been called a “third wave” of coronavirus. In Washington, health officials are warning that the virus is spreading so quickly that it could soon overwhelm hospitals and contact tracing efforts. To date, Washington has reported more than 125,000 cases and more than 2,500 deaths.

For the prior week, 5.1 percent of Covid tests statewide are coming back positive and 4.6 percent in Thurston County, according to the state’s Covid dashboard. The goal is to be under 2 percent. 

On Thursday night, Gov. Jay Inslee and First Lady Trudi Inslee gave a rare televised address during which they pleaded with Washington residents to cancel Thanksgiving and Christmas plans and gather virtually instead.

“We are in as dangerous a position today as we were in March,” Inslee warned. “We’re in a period of exponential growth and every single day matters. We cannot wait until our hospitals’ halls are lined with gurneys waiting for rooms before we take decisive action.”

Already, hospitals are feeling the pressure. Providence Southwest Washington said its facilities in Olympia and Chehalis have experienced a tripling in Covid-related hospitalizations in recent weeks. In an interview, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kevin Caserta echoed Inslee’s plea to mask up and avoid gatherings.

“Our caregivers, they’re tired,” Caserta said. “Not defeated, but tired. And if people would maintain the appropriate precautions, we could limit the spread of this virus significantly.”

Caserta said his wish for the upcoming holidays is that people take the threat of Covid seriously and change their behaviors.

“It’s going to help our community’s health, it’s going to help businesses to continue to be able to run … and most importantly it’s going to help our caregivers too,” Caserta said.

On Friday, Inslee, along with the Democratic governors of Oregon and California, announced a travel advisory that asks people to voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in one of the three west coast states, or upon returning from a trip elsewhere.

“Limiting and reducing travel is one way to reduce further spread of the disease,” Inslee said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Providence officials said they’re exploring options to expand testing capacity in Thurston County. That could mean longer hours at the existing location or opening a second location.

Copyright 2020 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."