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With case counts soaring, demand for COVID tests causing long waits

Three lines of cars. People in light-blue protective smocks and masks lean into some of the cars to perform COVID tests.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Workers at a drive-up COVID-19 testing clinic administer PCR coronavirus tests on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Puyallup. People using the facility, which is being run by the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management, faced waits of several hours Tuesday for testing.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has pushed case counts to new levels. In King County, they’re nearing 2,500 new infections a day, which is three times the previous peak. In Pierce County, health officials warn that hospitals and ICUs are near full.

This has many people on edge, with some facing new testing requirements as they return to work or school – and many just wanting peace of mind.

But capacity for testing is stretched to the limit. Regionwide, people are facing long lines, especially if they need immediate results.

KNKX called four branches in the Pierce County Library System, which is helping to distribute thousands of free at-home COVID test kits for the local health department. We got got a similar recording at each one:

“Currently, we have no COVID test kits. We do anticipate receiving some within a couple of days. Please check with us again tomorrow ...”  

The recording goes on to direct people who need tests right away to a temporary drive through test site at the fairgrounds in Puyallup.

Pierce County Emergency Management officials quickly relocated the site to expand capacity shortly after it first opened. On Monday, it administered 1,543 tests. But people there have had to wait for hours, and some were turned away. The lines have snarled traffic near the site.

There's just a lot more people that are getting sick,” says Kejuan Woods, the incident commander for COVID-19 response at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

He says the omicron variant has pushed demand for tests beyond all expectations. On top of that, holiday needs and logistical challenges created by all the ice and snow affected supply. He wants people to remember that there are lots of testing options, especially if you don’t need results right away.

“I get that it is more convenient to maybe go to these sites where you can just pull up and grab it. But you can't illuminate enough that there are other pathways to get the testing that you desire,” Woods said.  

Scheduling a PCR test through a pharmacy or health care provider is a good option, although Woods acknowledges that there are often long wait times for appointments and results, with the labs that process the tests now also facing staffing shortages as they are pushed to their limits as well.

“We understand that it has been difficult out there,” Woods said. “It really has just become — for the lack of a better term — a perfect storm of things that have happened in our area.”

He says it’s a good idea to check Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s website frequently for updates on testing options, as people in the system are working hard to increase availability and information flow.

That’s true in King County as well. The county last month announced a purchase of 300,000 extra at-home test kits. The first 100,000 should arrive next week. And the purchase of another 400,000 kits was announced Wednesday.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay says they can’t come soon enough.

People really are being responsible. They want to know, 'Am I infected? Am I going to be infectious?' And they want to know whether they need to stay home. And unfortunately, the testing capacity has not been able to meet the demand at this present moment.” Zahilay said.

“So giving people an at-home option is just a great way for them to be careful, to be safe.”

King County will work with community partners in areas with the highest need to distribute the kits. King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the purchase — made on the open market — to help protect hospital capacity and address equity issues.

It’s not clear when plans by the federal government to distribute millions of home tests will come through.

Corrected: January 5, 2022 at 2:48 PM PST
Fixed spelling of Kejuan Woods' name.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to