UW reduces capacity at COVID-19 test sites, reserved only for those with symptoms or exposure

Just as COVID-19 Omicron variant cases surge in western Washington, there will soon be fewer testing options available to the public. 

The University of Washington School of Medicine announced its decision on Thursday to limit its testing availability. Beginning on Jan. 4, all testing sites operated by UW will be reduced to only people experiencing symptoms or may have been exposed to COVID-19.

"Through our appointment system—limit testing appointments to those who have symptoms of a respiratory illness or those who have a known exposure to someone who is positive for COVID-19. And we will have to pause taking appointments for people without symptoms, including before travel or gathering," said Dr. Geoffrey Baird, chair of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at UW School of Medicine.

Baird said the highly contagious Omicron variant is causing positive test rates to soar. He explained the latest numbers from Public Health-Seattle & King County showed a testing site in Auburn had a 49% positivity rate.

"Which is just astronomically high compared to where we have been in between surges. We have often seen sites across Seattle at 5-10% positive. And at previous peaks we have seen positive rates at 20-25%," said Baird.

RELATED: Washington reports record number of COVID infections

He said those high numbers are outpacing their laboratory’s testing capacity. It’s one of two reasons why he said UW is reducing its availability. Baird said the change will also support efforts in providing the most accurate results.

"We have been targeting a 24-hour turnaround time or less and hitting that goal for most of COVID, actually. But, in the last few days, we’ve gotten to the point where our turnaround times have sometimes exceeded two days. And, medically speaking, a COVID test that is not back for several days just isn’t terribly meaningful because someone could honor and spread the virus," said Baird.

Barid said there was a spike of 20,000 tests collected per-day right before Christmas. With the limited capacity starting soon, staff will focus on 8,000-12,000 tests per day.

He said the plan is for sites to fully reopen again once the positivity rate decreases below 15%.

The limited capacity also means UW will close three of its testing sites, which those locations are at Seattle City Hall, Ballard and Sammamish. There are other agencies offering COVID-19 testing. 

Though they are difficult to come by, the Washington State Department of Health is encouraging people to try to find at-home tests. 

RELATED: Omicron now dominant virus strain in King County, western Washington

"Especially if they’re testing for travel or gatherings and there’s not a particular type of test required for their destination—that they really avail themselves to at-home tests so that those community-based sites and healthcare system sites that are really focused on diagnostic testings –people with symptoms, people with close contact—can prioritize those patients," said Lacy Fehrenbach, DOH deputy secretary for COVID-19 response.

The White House announced it will mail 500 million at-home tests to the public in January. DOH said it’s working with the federal government to see how many of those test will come to Washington.

"We are also looking at avenues as a state to provide direct to consumer access to at-home tests through ordering systems as well as for people who have low incomes or who may not be tech-savvy through community-based organizations and local public health," said Fehrenbach.

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