Lines forming at COVID testing sites

Lori Beard, of COVID Test Express, answers a customer’s questions recently at the drive-thru line along County Road 466. With a rise in the Omicron variant and attention about it, more people are seeking out testing.

The risk of catching COVID-19 is high everywhere in the nation currently, evident locally by longer lines at testing sites and strains on the medical profession.

The national COVID data tracker usually displays its four varying levels of virus transmission risk, but Monday the Centers for Disease Control colored the whole U.S. map in red — indicating a high risk everywhere. It comes as no surprise given that researchers warned that Omicron, the latest variant of coronavirus, spreads easily. '
The public is lining up for testing in droves to see if COVID is responsible for their symptoms:
 
• Walgreens reports it's seeing "unprecedented demand" for related testing and vaccine services.
• Traffic to a drive-up testing site on County Road 466 backed up onto a westbound lane Monday morning.
• Citing limited test kits, The Villages Health encourages patients to seek out major pharmacy providers like Walgreens and CVS, if a test is necessary.
• CVS reports it's keeping up with demand and working around the clock to try to get more at-home test kits into local stores.
• Paramount Urgent Care Clinic's parking lot in Lady Lake was full of people standing or sitting in vehicles waiting to be tested.
 
The state health department published a report Friday that showed 298,455 new coronavirus cases were recorded in the week that ended Dec. 30. The total more than doubled from the previous week, when the health department reported 128,186 cases. Additional data from the CDC was not available as of press time.
The number of Florida hospital patients with COVID-19 also has more than doubled during the past week, according to data posted Monday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency reported that 5,700 inpatients had COVID-19, up from 2,406 a week earlier.
Locally, 40 were hospitalized locally Monday, 19 at UF Health Leesburg Hospital and 21 at UF Health The Villages Hospital, according to hospital officials.
"Three of these patients are in the intensive care unit, including one ventilated patient," said Heather Long, chief operating officer for UF Health Central Florida. "This increase in cases represents a new COVID-19 surge that is projected to create a large volume of patients presenting to us for care in the ER's at UF Health The Villages Hospital and UF Health Leesburg Hospital. Although these cases may be less severe than those associated with the delta variant, the sheer volume of patients will be substantial. However, we expect admission rates to be significantly lower than with the delta variant and are equipped to treat patients presenting to our hospitals for care, including in our intensive care units."
Dr. Jeffrey Lowenkron, the chief medical officer for The Villages Health, concurs that the global snapshot that the Omicron variant is more mild than Delta variant, is holding true.
"The numbers are going up, but a lot of them are not being admitted," he said of overall cases.
He said the unvaccinated account for the majority of the hospitalized and those vaccinated with breakthrough cases are experiencing less severe cases.
This spike has also challenged staffing levels.
"We have staff out," Lowenkron said of the primary care centers. "So our patients need to recognize that and be patient."
But he said The Villages Health remains committed to caring for all of its patients.
Lowenkron said heavy media attention has contributed to more people wanting to get tested.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Surgeon General, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, said some of that rush to get tested may be frivolous.
Ladapo indicated the state Department of Health would issue guidance that would "unwind the testing psychology” of the federal government.
"We need to unwind this … planning and living one's life around testing,” Ladapo said during a news conference at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale on Monday. "Without it, we're going to be sort of stuck in the same cycle. So, it's really time for people to be living, to make the decisions they want regarding vaccination, to enjoy the fact that many people have natural immunity. And to unwind this sort of preoccupation with only COVID as determining the boundaries and constraints and possibilities of life.”
DeSantis pointed to what he characterized as frivolous testing for COVID-19.
"What you are seeing is there are people going to the drug stores, buying all these tests. They'll go multiple times per week to the sites and test, without symptoms. That is just going to contribute to some of the crunch that you are seeing,” DeSantis said.
Walgreens corporate officials say they've administered more than 22 million COVID-19 tests already, but now with unprecedented demand, the availability of testing appointments fluctuates daily and some stores may have temporary shortages.
A spokeswoman with CVS told the Daily Sun the Florida-based pharmacy chain has provided 41 million tests already, and thus far, is meeting the growing demand for on-site testing requests.
Both pharmacy chains offer two types of tests. A Covid-19 PCR test typically produces results from a third-party lab in 24 to 48 hours. A rapid test, with a little less reliability, can provide results in less than 24 hours.

Walgreens customers can visit walgreens.com/Covid19Testing and CVS customers can log onto CVS.com or on the CVS app for appointment information.

Both CVS and Walgreens are trying to keep at-home test kits in stock, but both have placed limit restrictions on how many kits a customer may purchase at once.
The drive-up testing site along County Road 466 is operated by Genesis Reference Laboratories in a partnership with Dr. David Kuhn, Covid Test Express.
Ladapo acknowledged the rapid rise in cases but said omicron symptoms are generally less severe than previous variants.
"Everyone knows omicron is spreading extremely rapidly,” Ladapo said. "The good news is that it appears to be less virulent, and the hospitalizations are not increasing nearly at the rate that the cases (are) … it's not close. There's a very big difference between the change in cases and the change in hospitalizations.”
Ladapo said Florida's upcoming shift in the approach to testing would put an emphasis on higher-risk people, though he did not give specifics of the plan. He suggested that the new guidance "doesn't restrict access to testing, but reduces the use of low-value testing and prioritizes high-value testing.”
Lowenkron echoed his long repeated message that becoming fully vaccinated with a booster dose, social distancing and hand-washing can go a long way in being the best measured responses to COVID-19.
"We're still going to see more cases because we're still going up," he forecast. "So it will increase some more, then plateau and then drop. If you're asking me for a time frame, I would say two to four weeks, but take that with a grain of salt."
Long agreed.
"To slow this trend, it is critical that we all remain diligent in our effort to eradicate this virus by continuing to adhere to the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health," she said. "Among them are getting vaccinated — including receiving a booster if eligible, wearing a mask, staying six feet away from others, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and washing your hands frequently."

CVS and Walgreens both offer appointments for vaccines.

The Villages Health, which operates seven primary care centers, offers first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine for its patients and those in the community. Initial vaccinations are available on a walk-in basis on Monday-Friday from 1-3 p.m. at those primary care centers.
The Villages Health also offers a Moderna booster dose, by appointment, for its established patients by calling 844-TVH-WELL (844-884-9355).
Lowenkron also encouraged residents to make sure they get a flu vaccine as well, noting that influenza cases are starting to emerge as well.
 
The Associated Press and Florida News Service contributed to this report. Curt Hills is a managing editor with the Daily Sun. He can be reached at (352) 753-1119, ext. 5287 or curt.hills@thevillagesmedia.com.