Sarasota COVID-19 testing sites continue to see huge demand

Anne Snabes
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

COVID-19 testing sites in Sarasota County are continuing to see high demand as the omicron variant spreads rapidly across Florida.  

About 540 people were tested at Dallas White Park in North Port on Monday, according to Mari Barnes, vice president of Lab Services, the contractor that runs the testing site.

And in Sarasota, more than 600 people got tested at Robert L. Taylor Community Complex that day.    

Barnes said the sites have seen an increase in demand compared to a week ago.

Related:Sarasota COVID-19 test site at Ed Smith Stadium closes unexpectedly amid omicron surge

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At these two sites, patients administer the COVID-19 tests to themselves. During the omicron surge, the longest time people have had to wait from the back of the line to the end of their test is about 1 hour and 20 minutes, Barnes said. Waits are typically shorter, though.

“If there’s 20 people there, you’re in and out in 15,” she said. “If there’s 40 people there, it takes about 30 minutes.”

Despite the surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious omicron variant and increased demand for testing, Florida’s surgeon general on Monday indicated the state Department of Health would issue guidance that would “unwind the testing psychology” of the federal government.

Comments by Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and Gov. Ron DeSantis taking aim at mass testing came after President Joe Biden’s administration last month announced a plan to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus tests to Americans.

Meanwhile, Sarasota Memorial Hospital has seen hospitalizations increase significantly over the past week, though they are not at the level reached last August. Sarasota Memorial reported Tuesday morning that it had 97 COVID-19 inpatients, compared to 90 on Monday and 62 last Thursday. These numbers include both patients who are positive for COVID-19 and patients who are cleared of infection but are still hospitalized.

Kim Savage, the public information officer for Sarasota Memorial, said that the hospital system has enough beds to accommodate the current number of patients hospitalized from COVID-19.

Statewide, the number of Florida hospital inpatients with COVID-19 has jumped to 6,914, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That was up from 5,700 on Monday and more than double the 3,148 that the federal agency reported a week earlier. The data said 766 Florida COVID-19 patients were in intensive-care units Tuesday, up from 382 a week earlier.

Manatee County government will be distributing 7,500 at-home COVID-19 testing kits on a first-come, first-served basis at all Manatee County libraries on Wednesday, Jan. 5.

The rapid COVID-19 test kits — provided by the Florida Department of Health — will be available at all branches when they open. Palmetto & South Manatee branches open at 9 a.m. The Braden River Branch opens at 10 a.m. The Downtown Central, Island and Rocky Bluff branches open at noon.

Barnes noted that during the COVID-19 wave due to the delta variant, many people who came to the two testing sites were very sick and fragile. She has not seen this trend during the omicron surge.

Drive-thru COVID-19 PCR testing is available at the Ed Smith Stadium parking lot in Sarasota seven days a week from 9am to 5pm.

“We do see a couple of people who are definitely worse off than others,” she said, “but for the most part, it’s people who have mild symptoms.”

Steve Huard, the spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health's Sarasota County office, said that all of the county's public testing sites are seeing high demand. 

One day last week, seasonal Sarasota resident Bill Eader had to spend most of the day trying to get a COVID-19 test. He waited about two and half hours at Ed Smith Stadium, and then found out that the testing site had closed. He then waited from 11 a.m. to after 4 p.m. at the former Sarasota Kennel Club site, where he was able to get tested.

Luckily, the conditions were tolerable while he waited.

“It wasn’t bad, because there was a good breeze,” he said. “I just shut my fan off, sat in there with all the windows open, and it wasn’t too bad.” 

While many people are seeking to be tested, Florida's surgeon general said Monday, "We need to unwind this … planning and living one’s life around testing.”

Ladapo's comments came during a news conference at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale this week. But few details were provided.

“So, it’s really time for people to be living, to make the decisions they want regarding vaccination, to enjoy the fact that many people have natural immunity," Ladapo said. "And to unwind this sort of preoccupation with only COVID as determining the boundaries and constraints and possibilities of life.”

DeSantis also pointed to what he characterized as frivolous testing for COVID-19.

“What you are seeing is there are people going to the drug stores, buying all these tests. They’ll go multiple times per week to the sites and test, without symptoms. That is just going to contribute to some of the crunch that you are seeing,” DeSantis said.

Ladapo acknowledged that the state has seen a rapid rise in cases but said omicron symptoms are generally less severe than previous variants.

“Everyone knows omicron is spreading extremely rapidly,” Ladapo said. “The good news is that it appears to be less virulent, and the hospitalizations are not increasing nearly at the rate that the cases (are) … it’s not close. There’s a very big difference between the change in cases and the change in hospitalizations.”

Ladapo said the upcoming shift in the approach to testing would put an emphasis on higher-risk people, though he did not give specifics of the plan. He suggested that the new guidance “doesn’t restrict access to testing, but reduces the use of low-value testing and prioritizes high-value testing.”

Hospitalizations:COVID patients at Sarasota Memorial are on the rise, mirroring state numbers

Nation:Biden to address nation, US reports 1M cases in a day; omicron 95% of cases: COVID updates

“So, if your grandmother gets a test, that’s a much more valuable test than the 8-year-old third-graders that Los Angeles County (Calif.) is sending in to get weekly testing. The first one is much more likely to change outcomes,” Ladapo said.

Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller also said the state’s “seniors-first strategy still exists,” reinforcing DeSantis’ plan to prioritize the elderly population in addressing the virus. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions are far more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19 than other people.

The governor said symptoms of the omicron variant being less severe should encourage younger Floridians to conserve COVID-19 treatments, such as monoclonal antibody treatment, for seniors.

“It’s basically cold-like symptoms for a lot of those folks. That is not something you need to be coming in and getting monoclonals for. So, let’s look at our elderly population. Let’s look at folks that are immunocompromised or maybe things like diabetes that have shown to be a real serious risk factor,” DeSantis said.

Nevertheless, Manatee County is distributing home tests.

“Manatee County is working hard to make sure all residents have access to COVID-19 tests,” said Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur. “I want to remind everyone that the best way to continue to protect yourself from COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask when you’re unable to social distance.”

According to a news release from Manatee County, some key points on using at home tests are:

COVID-19 self-tests — also referred to as home tests or over-the-counter (OTC) tests — are one of many risk-reduction measures, along with vaccination, masking, and physical distancing, that protect you and others by reducing the chances of spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

If you test positive, you should isolate and inform your healthcare provider, as well as any close contacts.

Consider using a self-test before joining indoor gatherings with others who are not in your household.

A positive self-test result means that the test detected the virus, and you are very likely to have an infection and should stay home or isolate for 10 days, wear a mask if you could have contact with others, and avoid indoor gatherings to reduce the risk of spreading disease to someone else.

A negative self-test result means that the test did not detect the virus and you may not have an infection, but it does not rule out infection. Repeating the test within a few days, with at least 24 hours between tests, will increase the confidence that you are not infected.

Four test kits per person will be available at the front desk area of the library.

This report includes material from the News Service of Florida.

Anne Snabes covers city and county government for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at asnabes@gannett.com or (941) 228-3321 and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes.