Once novel and hard to come by, coronavirus tests have become an essential part of pandemic life in Orange County and now can be found at doctors’ offices and massive drive-thrus or ordered online for doorstep delivery.
Next week, they’ll even be available at John Wayne Airport – for a price – just before travelers pass through security. Results are supposed to be ready within half an hour.
About 10 months after the pandemic started in Orange County and public and private operations got off to a sputtering start, the countywide testing engine is humming, with more options – many of them free – and shorter turnaround times.
Swabbing noses and throats, drawing blood and, most recently, perusing saliva for traces of the the virus have been a priority throughout the pandemic to help public health officials understand COVID-19’s actual footprint at micro and macro levels.
“The county’s testing ecosystem includes our two super sites, several near-site community-based kiosks, and access to 1 million at-home test kits to assure supply meets the growing demand for COVID-19 testing,” said Marc Meulman, chief of operations at the county Health Care Agency’s Public Health Services.
Capacity has come a long way. Collective testing in the county first broke 10,000 swab tests a week in the seven days ending April 30.
The county now consistently surpasses 100,000 swabs per week; one recent peak was about 169,000 from Jan. 1 to Jan. 8.
To date, nearly 2.4 million swab and saliva tests have been conducted in the county, with an additional 109,000 serology tests, which are ordered to see if a person was previously infected by detecting virus-fighting antibodies in their blood.
Once behind in average tests conducted per person among all California counties, Orange County pulled ahead in October and has been in line with or above the state median since then.
Over the week ending Jan. 2, the latest figures available from the state Department of Public Health, Orange County ran 570 tests per day per 100,000 residents, above the state average of 448 daily tests per 100,000.
That week, however, Orange County trailed all of its neighbors. Los Angeles County led the pack, conducting 801 tests per day per 100,000.
Demand for tests at the county’s two appointment-only drive-thru “super sites” at the Anaheim Convention Center and the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa has been higher than expected since Thanksgiving, said Linda Nguyen, community outreach director at 360 Clinic, which is under contract with the county to run the sites.
“We were not prepared for that surge. Of course we expected a minor surge, but we were not expecting our operations to nearly double,” Nguyen said.
Leading up to Thanksgiving, each site ran about 4,000 tests per day, she said. Then, Thanksgiving dinner gatherings contributed to an end-of-year wave of new cases and each drive-thru site ramped up to test about 7,000 people per day.
Still, patients are getting their results in about a day and a half, Nguyen said.
The testing company also runs about a dozen kiosks set up at city halls, parks, senior centers and other civic settings where demand is high in surrounding neighborhoods. These booths can run about 500 tests per day, Nguyen said.
Wait times at the super sites have improved over time as testing regulars return and staff aren’t needed as often to walk patients through the process.
“I personally went through the line myself as a regular patient and I was in and out of there within 20 minutes,” Nguyen said, describing a visit last week.
However, Nguyen said 360 Clinic plans to keep its sites appointment-only, having learned from a rocky experiment with allowing walk-up testing at a kiosk at Fountain Valley Sports Park last month. More people than expected showed up and staff got overwhelmed.
Though Orange County’s vaccine rollout has begun, Nguyen expects demand for testing to remain high in 2021.
“Testing will continue in the year to come… we have a good amount of people who are not comfortable with the vaccine at this time,” she said.