Overwhelmed testing capacity shuts down three UW sites; new limits on who can get a test

Big changes are coming to many testing sites in King County. Starting Jan 4, UW Medicine will only allow testing for people with symptoms, or who have been exposed to COVID. The overwhelmed system also led the university to temporarily shut down three test sites in Ballard, Seattle City Hall, and Sammamish.

It also means you will have to go somewhere other than a UW Medicine-run site if you are trying to get a test to travel or gather.

UW Medicine says the problem isn’t just how many people want a test, but rather, the issue is how many are coming back positive.

Dr. Geoffrey Biard, M.D., Ph.D., is the chair of UW Medicine’s Laboratory Medicine and Pathology Department. He says all of those positive tests are putting a huge strain on resources.

“Tuesday’s positive rate for example at the county’s Auburn collection site was 49 percent, which is just astronomically high,” Baird said. “This is frustrating and I count as one of the more frustrated. This isn’t an announcement I like to make. We are going to be trying to get back to our normal testing capacity as soon as we can,” Baird said.

Usually, UW Medicine labs pool four or five tests together to run through a machine that detects the COVID virus. If the pooled samples come back positive, then they run each sample individually to see which one has COVID. But now with so many positive cases, every single test has to be run separately.

“Another issue here, it’s not really an instrument problem. It’s more of a staffing problem. Because there’s just so much work to do, it’s very difficult,” Baird said. “We are in the midst of the worst public health disaster in the history of humanity,” he said.

People in Seattle say they’ve been waiting hours to get a test, even with an appointment.

“I had to wait in line for about two hours to get it,” said Bailey Albright, who got a test before gathering with family.

“It was like a 90-minute line just to take the test,” said Joel Micka, who got a test on Wednesday in Bellevue.

“It’s been chaotic with people who are symptomatic and there’s people who are asymptomatic trying to get tested – that’s been difficult,” said Monica Kramer, who lives in Seattle.

To help improve that situation, now you won’t be able to access UW Medicine’s test sites including SoDo, North Aurora, Rainier Beach, Shoreline, U District, and other sites unless you have an appointment and are showing symptoms or have been exposed to COVID.

So, what about rapid tests, or at-home tests? Baird says they do work well for people showing symptoms. But if you are healthy, the tests are unreliable.

“Rapid tests, the antigen tests, can give you a false sense of security,” Baird said. “The tests are not that sensitive for asymptomatic individuals,” he said.

The Washington State Department of Health has another warning too. DOH says the data show it is time to up your mask game, and stop relying on cloth masks.

“The omicron variant does have more of an ability to aerosolize than prior variants. That means it can more easily escape surgical masks,” said Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett with the DOH.

You should go for something that is rated KN-95 or equivalent, or double-mask for surgical masks, Dr. Tao said.