INDIANAPOLIS – Sick Hoosiers and those seeking a clean bill of health to travel, work, go to school and even attend a concert are overwhelming the COVID-19 testing system as the delta variant continues to surge.
The number of providers offering testing isn't the problem. You can find testing at hundreds of local pharmacies, hospitals, urgent care clinics and doctor's offices statewide. The Indiana Department of Health also has offered mobile testing clinics in high-need areas.
But people are still waiting days just to get an appointment – and days in the life of a contagious virus is a lot.
This is one reason some school districts including Fort Wayne Community Schools are stepping in to use on-the-spot rapid tests to fill the void.
Hannah Janssen, 29, was exposed a few weeks ago to someone who tested positive. She wasn't showing symptoms and was vaccinated but wanted a test to rule out infection. She couldn't find a rapid test anywhere and had to wait two days for an appointment to get a molecular test in Fort Wayne. The results came back the next day – negative.
“I felt it was necessary to quarantine until I got the result,” said Janssen, who works at Lincoln Financial, which allows staff to work from home.
While not charged for the test itself – she has insurance – she did have to pay a clinic fee for the appointment.
“I definitely feel like it is harder now,” Janssen said, telling of a friend had to wait two hours in a line for a test last week. “You can go to multiple places, but they are still inundated.”
Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana's state health commissioner, said the number of tests has increased – averaging 20,000 tests a day in the beginning of August to about 40,000 a day now. But positive cases are growing even faster – from about 1,100 positive cases a day in the beginning of August to about 4,000 a day now.
“The spread is just high,” she said.
Indiana closed its independent testing sites at the end of June due to a “robust community-led testing network” that had grown since the pandemic began.
But the delta variant hit shortly after that, causing a spike in tests.
On Thursday alone the state reported 61,400 new tests conducted.
Box said about 300 Indiana National Guard soldiers are being tasked to county health departments to help expand testing.
Allen County provides free testing – both PCR and rapid antigen tests – at 1230 Ruston Pass in Fort Wayne. Hours were reduced in the summer but have been expanded in recent weeks. The county suggests scheduling an appointment because walk-ins may not get screened.
PCR tests are molecular and are sent to a lab for processing to confirm the presence of the virus while rapid antigen tests are done on-the-spot but have less accuracy because they are not as sensitive, so there is a higher change of a false negative.
“Testing is an important tool in the overall community response to COVID-19. The easier it is to access testing, the better position we are in to identify positive cases and slow the spread in close settings like schools,” said Dr. Matthew Sutter, Allen County's health commissioner.
Box also noted that only the health department sites are guaranteed to be free. Other private providers set their own structure and some people without insurance are paying for testing.
Sutter said last year people were generally only getting tested when they became sick. But preemptive testing has escalated.
For instance, negative test results sometimes are required to travel, participate in sports, go to an event and get back to work and school after an illness.
“We also see quite a few folks who proactively test after an exposure because they are aware of concerns around asymptomatic spread of COVID-19. All are valid reasons to test, though it has put a strain on local test sites and causes longer wait times,” he said.
Box said school-related testing is high as a negative test shortens quarantine times when a student or teacher has been exposed to someone with COVID-19. That's why she is encouraging more schools to offer the testing themselves using federal funds. Only about 10% of districts are doing so now.
Fort Wayne Community Schools is one of them.
Spokeswoman Krista Stockman said all the district's school buildings have the rapid tests. They are being used when a student or staff member comes to school and then develops symptoms.
The nurse can test them immediately and if results are negative they simply go back to class. Without the rapid test, a parent would likely be called to pick up the child and they would have to navigate finding an appointment and getting a test in the following days.
“It allows us to keep kids in school,” she said, noting the district is doing more than 100 tests a day.
Parents must consent to the test. It especially helps in cases where a child might simply have allergies or a cold, which have some similar symptoms to COVID-19.
Stockman said the district considered also testing children to get back into school after a seven-day quarantine but said the nurses are too overwhelmed to increase the capacity. She said both PCR and antigen tests are acceptable according to state and federal guidance.
Box applauded FWCS's approach – noting the rapid tests are efficient in identifying infections, especially in those with symptoms.