While testing for COVID-19 can give people some much-needed information to help manage the viral infection, local experts say there’s confusion regarding who should be tested and when, which is making it more difficult for those who need tests to obtain them.

If a person is showing symptoms of COVID-19, it is important that they are tested, but it is less crucial for people without symptoms to rush to the nearest testing site, said Colleen Bridger, the assistant city manager who is serving as interim director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

“If you are truly, legitimately in close contact with [someone who tested positive], you need to self-quarantine for 14 days regardless of whether you take a test,” Bridger said, noting close contact is being within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.

As the number of new cases continues to grow throughout Bexar County, reaching 12,504 on Wednesday, requests for testing from people both with and without symptoms are putting a strain on testing sites that are having trouble meeting the demand.

Bexar County currently has the capacity to test at least 6,000 people per day through tests offered by Metro Health and private providers, including MedPost Urgent Care, Texas MedClinic, CVS, Walgreens, and Impact Urgent Care. 

Many of these sites, including Freeman Coliseum, Metro Health’s largest testing facility, and Texas MedClinic require appointments, and it can take days to get on the schedule. Last week, the demand for tests at Freeman was so high, its online registration portal was taken down, forcing people to book appointments by phone for the more than 500 appointments available daily. Texas MedClinic, which also takes walk-ins, is requiring those without symptoms to book appointments in an effort to cut down on unnecessary testing. Even with the extra step, Texas MedClinic is fielding an average of 200 more test requests than its 1,500 daily testing capacity. Clinics often are forced to stay open well beyond business hours with some seeing patients as late as 3 a.m.

Walk-up sites also are facing a strain with each offering just 350 tests per day. People often wait in line hours before sites open at 9 a.m., and some are still turned away when supplies are depleted.

“It’s still not an easy thing for someone who wants a COVID-19 test to go get that test due to demand,” Bridger said. “We know that, and we are working on it.”

Bridger said Metro Health is working with private providers to make changes that will allow Bexar County “to provide more tests more quickly to more people,” regardless of symptoms. Those changes include contracting with another testing vendor to increase availability and converting from a nasal to an oral swab test, which would allow more people to be tested in community pop-up and walk-up test sites. 

Testing also will increase when the 250 military medical personnel set to be deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense arrive in Bexar County.

On Monday, 6,104 tests were administered throughout the county, which reflects efforts to continue increasing access, said Anita Kurian, Metro Health’s assistant director.

However, until there is a significant increase in testing capacity, Metro Health and other testing facilities are trying to prioritize patients with symptoms or those who have come into contact with people who have been infected with the virus rather than those who are simply seeking peace of mind.

While you don’t always know if you’ve been exposed to the virus, “under 1 percent of people testing positive have no symptoms and no known interactions with someone who tested positive,” Dr. David Gude, Texas MedClinic’s chief operating officer said. So anyone believing they were exposed to the virus should immediately self-quarantine as a precaution, not immediately seek a test, he added. 

Because it takes up to 14 days for the virus to incubate in a person’s blood, it’s possible to have a negative COVID-19 test one day and a positive test a few days later. Health officials are advising those who think they might be infected to self-quarantine. If symptoms begin to occur and/or a test comes back positive, Bridger said those people should begin their own contact tracing and warn anyone with whom they were in close contact two days before they started showing symptoms so they can begin the same self-quarantining process.

“We are doing everything we can to expand testing, but getting tested before you have symptoms is not recommended because it does not rule out anything” and limits what is available to those who are a higher priority, Bridger said. 

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.