PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Demand for COVID-19 tests is soaring again in Rhode Island amid the latest surge of infections, creating new delays and forcing state leaders to reopen testing sites.
From the week of July 26 to the week of Aug. 2, demand for COVID-19 tests at state-run sites increased 69%, according to R.I. Department of Health data. The huge spike comes at the same time that average infections have ballooned from about 15 cases a day back in June to more than 200 a day this week.
The increase has spurred complaints that it’s not as easy to get tested quickly as it was last spring.
“In terms of delays, that has more to do with increases in volume than anything else,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said Wednesday.
“We also saw a lot of people arriving without an appointment, which always causes delays,” he added. “We are transitioning to more appointment testing, as opposed to walk-in testing, to help things move smoothly.”
COVID-19 testing delays were common early in the pandemic when testing availability was scant. But Rhode Island eventually ramped up capacity, and by last winter was administering about 16,000 test each day.
The numbers plummeted in the spring, however, after colleges and universities ended for summer break. Higher education institutions had accounted for a large portion of Rhode Island’s overall testing numbers because they required regular testing — weekly or biweekly — among many students and staff.
Infections had also declined sharply in the spring as vaccines became more widely available, spurring state leaders to start downsizing testing operations. Several sites closed, and tests were offered to anyone regardless of appointment. By mid-July, testing bottomed out at about 4,000 tests per day.
The state’s COVID-19 response team’s executive director, Thomas McCarthy, said he expects that will change beginning this week.
“We’ve been monitoring the demand daily over the last several weeks,” McCarthy said during a news conference Tuesday. “I would anticipate that we’re going to open up some additional testing sites.”
The state plans to expand its capacity to start offering more than 5,000 appointments per day, which would be in addition to all testing that’s being done at pharmacies and other private institutions.
With public schools slated to return next month, McCarthy said he also wants the state to be in a good position to make sure testing is easy and accessible. Children ages 11 and younger are currently ineligible to receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We want to make sure that we can control everything we can for the start of school, and one of those is our testing capacity, so we’ll make sure that’s as easy and accessible as possible,” he said.
Target 12 has also learned the state just switched to a new vendor, Doctors Test Centers, to manage some of its testing sites.
“This new vendor was brought on to help streamline and improve operations across our various test sites, which were previously run by multiple vendors,” Wendelken said, adding that demand was soaring before the new vendor started in Aug. 2.
Rhode Island infections have been rising steadily since the beginning of July, fueled largely by the highly contagious delta variant that accounts for upward of 80% of all new cases nationwide. On Wednesday, the Health Department reported another 30 cases tied to the delta variant for a running total of 114. That’s merely a sample size, however, since the Health Department only sequences a portion of new cases each week to distinguish the delta cases.
The Health Department also reported 226 new positive cases overall on Wednesday and a daily positivity rate of 3%.
Hospitalizations have likewise begun to increase, totaling 79 people as of Wednesday.
So far, the state has reported two COVID-19 deaths during August.
To make same-day appointment at a state-run testing site, visit portal.ri.gov or call (401) 222-8022.