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COVID test kiosks coming to Seattle as local test sites are ‘struggling’ to keep up with demand

One of the good things Seattle has managed to establish during the COVID-19 pandemic is a semi-consistent, free COVID test program for people in the area. The downside right now is that the local testing capacity is a bit oversubscribed.

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The capacity is overwhelmed right now, says Lisa Stiffler — a reporter for GeekWire who has been focusing on the effect of the pandemic on technology, business, and citizens — in part because people have been getting a COVID test to be confirmed negative before socializing, or even before traveling.

“I think people pushed it off until closer to Thanksgiving to see friends and family, which, of course, the governor and others have suggested they not do at all,” Stiffler told KIRO Nights. “…  While the city could keep up with the demand earlier, it’s just really skyrocketed, so they’re struggling.”

The free COVID test sites through the City of Seattle and King County may be the main locations people are getting tests, but it’s also possible to schedule a free test through your own doctor.

“Honestly, the tests are free no matter where you go. The insurance will pay for it,” Stiffler said. “The providers can’t charge you, so if you’re insured, your insurance company will pay for it. They cannot charge you any copay, so you don’t necessarily have to go through a city or county site. You could definitely go to a private care provider.”

The city is also planning to expand its testing capacity in December thanks to a pilot program with two mobile kiosks that are expected to provide 500 tests per day.

“What’s kind of interesting about this setup is that the people who are coming to get the test, they do it themselves,” Stiffler explained. “You cough into your mouth a couple times, then you swab and put that into a little vial and hand it off. So an upside to this approach is that health care providers don’t have to interact with patients or people getting tested, so there’s less demand for PPE, they don’t have to have the safety material on, and then they send away the sample. Again, there’s still a delay about 24-48 hours [for results].”

The city plans to add more kiosks in mid-December, which will not quite double the city’s current testing capacity.

Stiffler says she’s unsure about the percent accuracy of the self-conducted mouth swab tests compared to the nasal swab tests being conducted at drive-up and walk-up sites, but Curative, the company that runs the kiosks, is not new to this program.

“The company that runs these kiosks has about seven million tests under its belt, and they’re across the country,” she said. “So [the self-swab tests are] certainly adequate for giving you that sense. And, of course, the public health officials all caution that even if you get a negative test, whether it’s a false negative or an accurate negative, that you can still be positive, but you just don’t have enough of a viral load for the PCR tests to pick it up.”

Testing capacity is finite, however, so health officials at every level — state, county, and city — are first recommending that people avoid gatherings as cases continue to rise in Washington state.

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“Everyone is begging the public to not congregate with anyone outside their household,” Stiffler said. “They almost sound desperate when they’re asking for that. So they would say first and foremost that. Secondarily, they say only get testing if you have symptoms or you know that you’ve been exposed to someone who’s sick.”

“King County has a couple of its own sites, which are less oversubscribed, so that might be an option,” she added. “But they really are encouraging people to only get testing if they think they really actually might have COVID, not just as a preventative measure so that they can do the socializing that they would like to do for the holidays.”

Both Seattle and Edmonds have reported long lines at testing sites Monday. Find a list of Seattle’s testing sites online here.

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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