Putting COVID to the Test

As Delta variant spreads, the conversation around COVID testing and the availability of tests is changing

After COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in June, experts warned that illnesses such as the common cold would begin spreading again. So when I came down with what I figured was a cold, I still wanted to get tested for COVID just in case, given the rapid spread of the Delta variant, even among the vaccinated.

The only problem was I couldn’t seem to find testing. Across pharmacies, there were not many appointments available, and I received confusing information about testing at urgent cares. When I finally found an urgent care that was administering rapid tests, the earliest appointment was still several days away, so I ended up reserving a single available appointment at a nearby Walgreens. I tested negative for COVID-19, thankfully, but it still took several days of living in limbo before I knew for sure. 

As it turns out, with the surge of cases, testing availability has not yet increased to match. Although many expected testing to eventually fade, experts are reapproaching the conversation, encouraging both vaccinated and unvaccinated folks to get tested when they feel any sickness.

“Testing has changed. Before the vaccination effort, testing was our priority,” says Lane County Public Health spokesperson Jason Davis. “As we got closer to vaccinations, testing fell and case numbers dropped and testing dropped.”

Donna Hansel is the chair of pathology at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland. She says with the uptick in cases and hospitalizations — Lane County reached a record number of 929 infectious residents on Aug. 10 — she has seen more conversations around frequent testing, especially for those who are unvaccinated and working in schools or with government employers.

She adds that over the last few months, mass testing died down, but now there is talk of reinstituting drive-thru testing. 

In Lane County, Davis says the exact number of Delta cases in the community is not known.

“We think Delta will be the predominant variant and strain of COVID in Lane County,” Davis says. “Delta is very much here.” He adds that understanding how the Delta variant moves through the county is very restricted because of limited access to sequencing and the number of rapid antigen tests. 

Because vaccines are highly effective, it is still unlikely that a vaccinated individual will contract COVID-19, but it is always better to be safe. Davis says in Lane County hospitals, about 75 percent of individuals in the ICU are non vaccinated, 25 percent of people are half vaccinated, and less than one percent are fully vaccinated. He says if folks are traveling and want to take a test when they get back, to do so.

“You should still get tested because vaccinated people can pass it on,” Davis explains, referring to recent data that found that vaccinated individuals infected with the Delta variant can carry as many virus particles as unvaccinated people. 

In looking at break-through cases, which constituted 20 percent of Oregon’s total COVID cases last month, Hansel says both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should get tested when they don’t feel normal. She assures more testing will be available as communities readjust to the high number of infections.

“We are going to see a shift towards easier and more available testing,” Hansel says. 

Testing can also help determine how much the variant is spreading through a community, through a process called sequencing, which tells pathologists which strain of COVID an individual tests positive for. In Oregon, only 10 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases have been sequenced. Sequencing can be done with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and not a rapid antigen test.

Hansel says OHSU has its own sequencing lab, and labs that cannot sequence can send their positive tests to state offices like Oregon Health Authority and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Although big drive-thru testing is not available right now, Davis says there are still a handful of options on where to get tested in the Eugene-Springfield area. The University of Oregon has free PCR testing at Matthew Knight Arena and MacArthur Court. According to UO’s website, preregistration is advised, but walk-ins are also accepted.

“We recommend that everyone who tests positive for an antigen test to talk to a provider, who might recommend an additional PCR test,” Davis adds. 

Walgreens and Rite Aid also have free testing available, but appointments are required. There are also tests available at PeaceHealth and Nova Health Urgent Care, with both places reporting long wait times. Check in with a testing center before going in, as some clinics only test those who are symptomatic or may require a virtual appointment first. 

Overall, Hansel says that getting tested more frequently regardless of vaccination status goes along with other guidelines to wear masks and social distance again. It may feel like moving backwards, but it’s precautionary to ensure people take care of one another. 

“We are not back at square one,” Hansel says. “We have a vaccine that is really effective at keeping people out of the hospital and keeping people alive. We are making progress and some of that progress involves all of us participating.”

For more information on where to get a COVID-19 test and when to quarantine, visit LaneCounty.org/CommunityTesting. Visit LaneCounty.org/VaxClinics to find locations administering free COVID-19 vaccines. 

This story has been updated.