A year and a half into the pandemic, as Shelby County reels from a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, it’s become increasingly difficult to find a test.
How to get a test
If you’ve come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, or you’re experiencing symptoms, health officials urge you to get tested. Regardless of the option you choose, remember that demand is high. Expect long waits. Local officials and organizations are working to make more tests available. Visit the city’s testing location website for a list of test locations.
Community test sites
There are four Shelby County locations open regularly. Here’s how to get a test at each.
- University of Tennessee, 1068 Cresthaven. Open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Text COVID to 901-203-5526 for an appointment.
- Christ Community Health Services, Lamar emissions station. Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Text “Test2020” to 91999 for an appointment. Christ Community also expects to have another drive-through site open daily next week. For other Christ Community locations, which are open less regularly, visit their website.
- Poplar Healthcare site, Hacks Cross in East Germantown. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. No appointment is necessary but you must pre-register online.
- Shelby County Health Department, Millington. Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 901-222-9949 for an appointment.
Find a list of the community locations with less frequent availability on the city’s testing location website.
Other test sites
Baptist Memorial Hospital also performs tests at many of its locations, though most are by appointment only. For more information, visit their website or call 901-227-TEST.
At-home test kits
The Food and Drug Administration has given Emergency Use Authorization to a handful of at-home testing kits available over-the-counter or by prescription. They can be purchased at pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS, or online, though many are sold out.
Many people who spoke to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism said they struggled to find a quick appointment nearby – including Brittney Fitzgerald, 33, whose 3-year-old son, Xavier, was exposed at preschool. There weren’t any rapid tests available within a 45 minute or so drive, she said. She would have bought an at-home testing kit, but they were sold out. She eventually booked a PCR appointment three days out at a nearby Walgreens, for which they waited 45 minutes.
Xavier’s negative results didn’t come for three days, during which time he was home with Fitzgerald, who is a speech therapist.
“Thankfully, with my job, I’m able to flex. I can work from home or be in the office. So I stayed home … and just had to juggle my work while, of course, tending to my child,” she said.
Test access issues are relatively new in Shelby County. When Jaclyn Suffel, a 36-year-old PR professional, spiked a fever a month ago, she couldn’t imagine she was sick with COVID-19. She’d gotten two vaccine doses, but out of an abundance of caution, the day she felt ill, she decided to get tested.
She drove to Poplar Healthcare, was quickly swabbed, and went home to rest. The next morning she awoke to a notification she’d tested positive and a flurry of messages from the Shelby County Health Department urging her to quarantine and letting her know they’d perform a genetic sequence on her sample, since she was among the first vaccinated people to test positive.
But in the last few weeks, getting a test at a convenient location and quickly has been hard.
“A perfect storm” of factors has caused testing access difficulties, said Jenny Bartlett-Prescott, chief operating officer at Church Health and lead on the city and county’s Joint Covid Task Force testing subcommittee.
Delta cases have soared rapidly, as has the demand for tests, which makes it harder to keep up, Bartlett-Prescott said.
The Delta variant “exploded onto the scene,” she said. “Our community test sites went from about 20% capacity to beyond filled, over 100% capacity, in two weeks. So the speed with which the volume increased was so fast it was hard to respond and increase services.”
And the vast majority of people getting tested at community test sites either have symptoms or have been exposed, she said. “This is a symptom of the rate at which the virus is spreading throughout our community.”
Between Aug. 19 and Aug. 25, Shelby County averaged just under 4,000 tests a day, according to state data, including tests given at private pharmacies, hospitals and community test sites. That’s double the tests the county averaged in June and early July, when rarely were more than 2,000 performed a day.
Church Health had been using rapid PCR tests that they could process onsite, relieving some of the burden on nearby labs (PCR tests tend to produce fewer false-negatives than antigen tests).
But supply chain shortages forced Church Health to revert to PCR tests that need to be processed out-of-house. They’re sent to labs that are also experiencing backlogs, which can then lengthen the turnaround time. It’s all compounded by staffing shortages that have hit the health care industry, as well as many other industries nationwide.
Though the task force doesn’t have specific data on how access to tests affect who is getting tested, “as with any kind of health inequity, I think it’s reasonable to assume those same inequities apply to access to testing,” Bartlett-Prescott said.
Shelby County’s vaccine rollout was criticized for furthering those inequities, as people without internet access – who are more likely to be Black and older – were shut out of initial sign-ups. And Tennessee’s vaccination plan prioritized people by age, even though Black people are less likely to live as long as white people.
Transportation to testing sites can be a barrier, Bartlett-Prescott said.
On June 13, the positivity rate was 2.5%, but by Aug. 14, it’d risen to 21.5%, the highest it’s been since the pandemic began, according to county data. That high rate indicates that there’s not enough testing and many positive cases are being missed. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all increasing – though so are vaccinations. The seven-day-average for daily cases on Friday was 731, up from 604 two weeks ago. Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, City of Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen said at a press conference Thursday, with more than 700 people in acute and ICU care.
Experts theorize that the average incubation period for Delta is shorter than the original version of the virus – four days instead of six. That, coupled with Delta’s ability to produce higher viral loads in people, makes the virus easier to spread.
Christ Community Health Services is “striving” to add an additional site next week, said Dr. Reginique Green, the center’s chief of medicine. That will bolster capacity by 1,100 tests a day, said Bartlett-Prescott. And the city is adding additional testing lanes at Poplar Healthcare at Hacks Cross and Christ Community at the Lamar emissions station, McGowen said.
But Bartlett-Prescott stressed that symptomatic people should quarantine, even if they can’t get tests.
That’s what 58-year-old Amy and 57-year-old Brad Moritz, both consultants, did when they were exposed to the coronavirus at a very small gathering of fully vaccinated people Aug. 13. Though they attributed their mild symptoms to allergies, they decided to quarantine for a few days, then get a PCR test – their first COVID-19 test – the following week.
But when they sent in a pre-registration form at Christ Community’s drive-through site off Lamar, they never heard back. They finally decided to get a test without an appointment last Wednesday, where they waited in line for an hour and a half, Amy said.
“It was a huge surprise to me that 18 months into this that we don’t have the infrastructure I expected we would have,” she said.
More than a week later, they still hadn’t gotten a call with their results. A friend suggested they text a number – which is the same number a caller to Christ Community will hear while on hold.
They both texted and got the same response: “Someone will call you with your results. I can not officially give you results. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT.”
A few days later, Brad texted again. The reply: “If you need your results today, come to 3364 South Third Street,” which is next to another Christ Community location.
Green said she couldn’t explain the texts or why the Moritzes hadn’t gotten test results, but asked for patience as Christ Community works to increase testing capacity. Cris Stovall, Christ Community’s director of communications, said if people haven’t gotten their test results within three days, they can use the website’s “Contact Us” form, and include their name, date of birth, phone number and date of test, and someone will reply. (If people want a test, they can text “TEST2020” to 91999 to schedule an appointment.)
Christ Community’s site went from testing 30 people a day during the low point this spring to 500 people a day, Green said. She knows wait times are long and test result turnaround times can be lengthy, which she said can partly be attributed to the fact that labs are overwhelmed.
But she also said the health care professionals are working harder than ever. Their testing site is not air conditioned, and people performing tests sometimes wear ice vests to keep cool. They can encounter cars where six people all need tests, and each one has to be labeled properly. And doctors and nurses are leaving the profession, she said, after months of witnessing trauma.
Christ Community staff members meet daily, Green said, to try and address testing issues.
“We are working hard every day to improve our processes, the wait times. But the medical community is under much strain and we are doing everything we can to meet the needs.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend asymptomatic vaccinated people isolate themselves if they come into contact with a person who has tested positive, though they do recommend getting a test three to five days after exposure. Symptomatic vaccinated people should get tested and isolate.
Moritz and her husband continued isolating while waiting for test results. By Thursday morning, they still didn’t have results, but they’d ended their 10-day quarantine.
They’re being more cautious now by limiting their time indoors and always wearing masks, Moritz said, but despite the hassle, if they’re exposed again, they’d still get tested.
“It was just really important to us to try to do the right thing,” and get a test, she said.
“And so I still would want to do the right thing, even though I’ve been disappointed that I never have gotten any results.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a reporter for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rafael Figueroa, a journalist with La Prensa Latina, translated this story to Spanish.
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