Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 20 Otsego County residents, COVID-19 tests are still in limited supply locally.

Westford resident Jaime Love said her daughter’s school required her to be tested before returning from holiday break.

“All this time, I thought testing was free, but I learned it’s not that easy,” Love said. She found that an asymptomatic test for her daughter would have cost the family $190 out-of-pocket.

“We can’t afford that,” she said. “After many frustrating phone calls and research, we found that only a New York state testing site would do it for free, but we had to drive her an hour and a half away. That’s a hardship for a lot of people.”

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring, New York has offered free COVID testing at more than a dozen drive-thru sites across the state, but none in Otsego County. The closest state-run sites are on the SUNY campuses in Albany and Binghamton and at Griffiss International Airport in Rome.

Kerry-Lynn Cullen, a care manager at Southern Tier Care Coordination, said the organization provides for COVID testing, but requires her to drive to Binghamton or Albany — about an hour and a half each way — for a molecular COVID test, a non-rapid test that detects the presence of the virus’ genetic material and yields results within five to seven days.

“Rapid tests are impossible to find in this area for myself or my clients, most of whom are Otsego or Delaware county residents,” Cullen said. “The setting up of rapid tests at Bassett for two days this month did little but put a small dent in the problem.”

Starting last month, Bassett Healthcare Network hosted free COVID testing clinics in locations across Otsego, Schoharie and Herkimer counties for non-symptomatic individuals, conducting around 200 tests to date, according to Karen Huxtable-Hooker, Bassett’s communications and marketing director.

“Bassett requested and received a limited supply of testing kits from the state to be used on individuals who don't have symptoms of COVID-19, but wish to be tested,” Huxtable-Hooker said. “These test kits have been used to help businesses and facilities where individuals have tested positive for COVID understand the degree of spread in their facility.”

The free testing clinics were held “as supply has allowed,” Huxtable-Hooker said. “The number of future clinics for people not experiencing symptoms of the virus is uncertain as the supply of these kits is inconsistent, and the ability to free up staff to conduct the testing is limited.”

“Although these are referred to as ‘rapid’ tests, analyzing the specimens takes time,” Huxtable-Hooker said, noting that about 32 people can be tested per day. “We must prioritize using our staffing resources across the network for urgent patient care needs related to the pandemic and continuing post-holiday surge.”

“We absolutely do not have adequate access to testing,” Cullen said. “I truly wish that New York state would create a drive-thru state testing system like at Binghamton University, maybe on SUNY Oneonta’s campus. Not everyone has a vehicle and/or gas money to drive three hours’ round trip to get tested.”

The first two times Otego resident Serina Wilber was directly exposed to a COVID-positive individual, she said she waited outside Oneonta’s WellNow clinic for more than seven hours total for a COVID test. 

“During those long waits, I saw waves of people coming in, waiting, scheduling future appointments,” Wilber said. 

After her third direct exposure, “I just quarantined and crossed my fingers,” she said.

Wilber, who was then asymptomatic, said she was told the wait for a test would be at least a week.

“They did their best,” she said. “The staff was kind. They did not rush my appointment. It was just an inconvenience to have to wait in the lot.”

"We are continuing to accept appointments at all WellNow centers for COVID-19 testing,” a WellNow representative said in a Jan. 6 statement. “Due to high demand, appointments for the day may book up quickly. If no appointments are available, patients are welcome to walk in to their nearest center, although this may result in longer than normal wait times. We regret this inconvenience and are doing everything we can to safely see as many patients as possible during our operating hours.”

Louise Nitto of New Lisbon, who needed a COVID test before a scheduled surgery, said she left a testing appointment at WellNow after staff informed her that she could not be tested unless she consented to a complete medical examination, even though she had just had one in preparation for the surgery.

“We left there, and the only one that would do it on short notice was Bassett,” Nitto said. “Thank goodness for them doing it. More testing sites are desperately needed.”

Oneonta resident Emily Ward said she missed five days of work trying to schedule and receive a COVID test when she started exhibiting possible symptoms — a sore throat and cough — two days before Thanksgiving.

“With the holidays, cold season and people deciding to travel during a pandemic, the demand for tests is astronomical,” she said. “This whole situation is ridiculous.”

Attempting to schedule an appointment at WellNow by phone, Ward said she was told her best bet would be trying to schedule a test on the WellNow website right at midnight.

“I tried multiple times starting at midnight but finally gave up,” she said. “When I called WellNow Wednesday morning, I was told all of the appointments for that day had filled up in the first couple of minutes after midnight, but if I wanted, I could drive over and get in line on a waiting list.”

Ward said she tried Bassett’s COVID hotline and was able to schedule a non-rapid test within two days, with results expected to return in an additional five to seven.

“By Thursday, my symptoms were gone when I went in for my test,” she said. “They were very nice and efficient.”

“Bassett's campuses are running at full capacity; we are caring for COVID patients and patients with non-COVID health issues, while also trying to distribute the vaccine and increase testing,” Huxtable-Hooker said. “It has been a long 10 months and we owe a debt of gratitude to the health care workers on the frontlines of this pandemic who have and continue to sacrifice a great deal to be there for our communities and patients.”

Visit bassett.org/covid-19 for more information about COVID resources at Bassett and wellnow.com/covid-19 for more information about available COVID tests, cost and insurance coverage at WellNow.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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