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High demand for COVID tests coupled with short supply creates challenges across Kern County

When Azucena Rosas started feeling labor pains last week, she knew it wouldn't be long until she would be in the delivery room.

The Delano resident wanted her fiance by her side when she gave birth, but there was one thing standing in their way: a negative COVID-19 test. Because her fiance is unvaccinated, he had to show a negative test. They figured — wrongly, it turned out — finding a place to get tested would be easy.

"We spent the whole day trying to get a test," she said.

Rosas said they went to locations of Rite Aid, Clinica Sierra Vista, OMNI, Walgreens and Universal Urgent Care in Delano and Bakersfield with no luck. They couldn't find a same-day appointment for a rapid test.

Rosas and her fiance were affected by a shortage of rapid COVID-19 tests at a time when demand is high not just in Kern County, but throughout California. Brynn Carrigan, director of Kern County Public Health Services, said several factors have created incredible demand.

"It’s almost like the perfect storm," she said.

First, there is the surge of COVID cases associated with the rise of the delta variant. More cases tend to be accompanied by a demand in testing.

This surge has also been accompanied by increasing testing regimens throughout the state, Carrigan said. A state order in July requires regular testing for those who work in health care, corrections and other high-risk congregate facilities. Carrigan notes that many employers have testing plans in place.

Dina Madden, chief nursing officer of Kaiser Permanente Kern County, noted that more testing requirements for travel have also increased demand.

One new source of demand over the past few weeks has been increased testing of students and staff now that schools are in session.

INCREASED DEMAND IN SCHOOLS

Two years ago a runny nose or a tickle in the throat might not have warranted a call home. Now state protocol requires that a child with these symptoms be sent to an isolation room while they wait to be picked up by their parent. The parents of these children then often seek tests to figure out if, say, mere allergies are the culprit and their child can return to school for their education.

When that tickle in the throat turns out to actually be COVID, it triggers more tests. The parents of other children who were within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes at school or on the bus will be notified they were exposed.

If both parties were masked, the exposed party is eligible for modified quarantine, which allows asymptomatic students to stay in school. Key to that is that they receive regular, timely testing. That last part has become an issue since the start of school. 

"It takes a couple days for parents to get an appointment," said Rosedale Union School District Superintendent Sue Lemon.

In the meantime, students are at home, sometimes feeling completely fine.

"Parents are feeling frustrated that they can't follow the recommendation of the modified quarantine, because it's not available," said Nancy Gordon, director of health, safety and wellness at the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District.

Gordon explained this to the board at its August meeting. Trustee Bryan Easter pressed the district on why it didn't have its own tests, which could get students back in class quickly.

School districts in Kern County are scrambling to do just that, but because of a shortage in rapid tests, they're not having much luck.

Last school year, California mandated that school districts offer routine COVID testing under its defunct color-coded tier system. Jennifer Irvin, assistant superintendent of educational services for PBVUSD, said few students or parents took advantage of it.

In June, that mandate evaporated, and PBVUSD loaned its tests to the Kern High School District, which routinely tests its athletes.

Irvin said that they were looking into getting some of those valuable test kits back, but they've also put in a request from their contractor, Color. Color is out of kits, but the district is awaiting an order.

KHSD spokeswoman Erin Briscoe-Clarke said the district has a supply of PCR tests readily available — she notes the shortage seems to be a particular problem among rapid tests. The California Department of Public Health told the district it will receive a limited supply soon.

Lemon said the district is trying to set up a testing regimen for its students, but it has also run headlong into the state's shortage.

The Bakersfield City School District is not working on setting up a testing regimen for its students. Superintendent Mark Luque said the district is working on what will set off a new demand in testing: a state requirement that school staff who are not fully vaccinated receive routine testing.

COUNTY WORKS TO MEET DEMAND

Carrigan said the county health department has been increasing its testing at sites around Kern to meet the rise in demand. It has done this thanks to its state-funded vendor, OptumServe.

At its COVID testing sites in Arvin, Wasco and Rosamond, it has moved from offering testing two days a week to offering it four days a week. Its COVID-19 vaccination sites in Tehachapi, Bakersfield and Delano as well as mobile vaccination clinics will also add testing to their menu.

The county is working to make sure that the lowest quartile of Kern County residents have access to testing, Carrigan said.

Urgent care centers seem to be especially overloaded recently, Carrigan said. She recommends that residents visit the county's testing map and try a site that they may not be used to: https://phweb.kerncounty.com/Html5Viewer/index.html?viewer=COVID19TestingSites.

DEMAND FLATTENING

There seem to be some signs that the demand for tests is beginning to flatten. 

Kaiser's Madden said that before August, wait times were around 10 minutes. They shot up to three hours in some cases, which prompted Kaiser to reallocate staff to meet testing demand and open a second testing site. This is consistent with what Kaiser saw all around the state. But last week was a little lighter.

"The demand seems to have leveled off over the past week but remains steady with wait times between 15 minutes — 1 hour during peak hours," she wrote.

There was one bit of good news for Rosas: Her baby wasn't ready just yet that day. Her fiance booked one of the appointments days out. They're crossing their fingers that the timing will be right and her fiance will be able to have a valid test that will allow him to be right by her side in the delivery room. She's been shocked by how hard — and expensive — the process has been.

"We’re just trying to prepare ourselves now," she said.

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.