Just a few weeks after the first case of the Omicron variant was detected in Washington on Dec. 4, COVID cases began rising at a significantly higher rate than previous variants.
Washington went from an average of 1,000 to 2,000 COVID cases per day in October and November to nearly 19,000 by mid-January, according to the state’s Department of Health.
With omicron being more transmissible than the delta variant, the onslaught of the disease has been exacerbated by the nation’s lack of COVID tests. The recent snowstorm between the end of December and early January made it more difficult to access COVID PCR tests due to staff shortages and dangerous road conditions.
The combination of extremely high demand and low supply created a frustrating situation for many Sammamish residents. Appointments for PCR tests were booked out several weeks in advance. Some healthcare providers, such as Sammamish’s Evergreen Health Primary Care, had to restrict PCR appointments to only patients who were experiencing symptoms.
June Higginbotham, 17, recalls getting tested at Evergreen Health Primary Care this past summer when it was much easier to secure an appointment.
“I was exhibiting no symptoms, but I was required to get tested for COVID before traveling through Emirates. I decided to get tested at Evergreen, and the process was both efficient and fast,” said Higginbotham.
In mid-January, Higginbotham’s testing experience was starkly different. After receiving an exposure notification from the WA Notify app, Higginbotham was asymptomatic.
“I wanted to get tested just to be sure I did not have COVID, but Evergreen had to turn me away due to the nationwide shortage of COVID tests,” said Higginbotham.
Fortunately, Higginbotham had rapid tests at home and tested herself on the same day she found out about her exposure, and then again three days later after quarantining over a weekend. She tested negative both times but would have preferred the PCR test due to the rapid test’s lower accuracy.
Similarly, Meena Radhakrishnan, 17, experienced extreme difficulty while attempting to book a COVID test during the second week of January. When Skyline High School opened after winter break, Radhakrishnan said the atmosphere was tense. Students were unhappy with Skyline’s response to the virus and unsure what to do about the crowded environment they were immersed in daily.
After being told she had been in close contact and unmasked with a friend who had tested positive for the virus, she immediately tried to book a PCR test.
After searching for testing sites through the Department of Health website for about an hour, Radhakrishnan finally found a single appointment a few hours away in Walla Walla. She tried again the next day and managed to find a single appointment in Issaquah. She then canceled her Walla Walla booking.
Evergreen Health’s website stated that when more people get tested than is necessary, labs get backed up and it takes longer for patients to get test results.
They emphasized how it was important, especially with the rapid community spread of the virus, to be able to get test results to people as soon as possible so that they can quarantine themselves.
In January, even rapid tests were out of stock almost everywhere in Sammamish. Rapid tests were sold out across the nation as President Joe Biden made his announcement to provide four free COVID rapid tests to families across the country starting Jan. 19. They are currently still sold out in many stores in Sammamish, but can be ordered online through Walgreens, CVS, and other pharmacies. Shortages have been somewhat alleviated by free tests by mail from the federal and state governments.
There are currently no drive-through testing sites in Sammamish. However, the PCR testing site in Lake Sammamish State Park reopened at the end of January after being closed for a month due to a staffing shortage.
To find a COVID PCR testing location near you, go to the Washington State Department of Health’s website.