13 Investigates finds COVID-19 testing limited on evening, weekends

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When one of Deric Smith's co-workers tested positive for COVID-19, he knew he wanted to take his family to get tested.

Smith typically works from 6 a.m. to at least 4:30 p.m. but decided to use a sick day Friday to sit in line at Cullen Middle School and get tested.

"I just heard about this place and decided to come down," Smith told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg, adding that he wasn't sure how to find a testing site outside of his normal working hours.

A 13 Investigates analysis of COVID-19 testing sites across the state found only 13 percent of the 1,101 sites in Texas are open on weekends or beyond 8 a.m. to 6 p.m on weekdays. That percentage does not include additional testing sites that may have evening or weekend hours but require an appointment.

In Harris County, just 20 of the 173 COVID-19 testing and antibody testing sites listed on the Texas Department of State Health Services' website offer tests in the evening or weekend.

"This has actually been something that we have discussed internally quite a bit," Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said on Friday. "We originally had our hours that were different than they are now. Unfortunately, because of the summer heat, we've had some challenges where we've had to actually shift our hours to the morning hours."

For individuals who can only get tested when they're not at work, the limited time slots don't make it easy to get a test.

"What about the ones who don't have transportation? What about the ones that are working? They cannot access this location Monday through Friday," said Gulfton Super Neighborhood Council president Sandra Rodriguez. "We need to provide these services on the weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays when the community is available."

A nationwide analysis by FiveThirtyEight, ABC News, and ABC-owned television stations shows testing sites in communities of color in many major cities face higher demand than sites in whiter or wealthier areas in those same cities. The result of this disparity is clear: People of color, especially Black and Hispanic people, are more likely to experience longer wait times and understaffed testing centers.

RELATED: Data analysis finds COVID-19 testing lacking in many minority communities

And, although our investigation found Houston is tackling the issue better than other cities nationwide, the analysis doesn't factor in how many people aren't showing up to tests because they can't leave their jobs to wait in line.

"We recognize this as a big issue," Shah said. "We have not fully addressed this in the way that we feel that it should handle what is happening in our community and the concerns, so we're going to continue to look at this. (It) is something that we have been discussing internally because it is an important piece for us to make sure we get this right."

In Harris County, there's been 62,619 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to data from the city and county. As of Friday, 614 cases resulted in deaths. Nearly 14 percent of the state's 3.4 million COVID-19 tests took place in Harris County, according to state data.

RELATED: Texas' record-breaking week of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

Shah said the health department looked into the possibility of split shifts, where some testing occurred during the morning and resumed in the evening. He said one of the challenges in doing that would be that samples need to be picked up at night, and that wouldn't be conducive to a split shift.

"We're all looking at this, as we get past this extension that FEMA has given us through July 31, of what that could potentially look like," Shah said. "Some of the options are even looking at locations that are more indoors, or have some more shading, or the ability to be able to handle things during the day, but also, if we need to shift those hours to the evening."

Some testing sites in Houston have hours before 9 a.m., which Shah said he hopes will allow people to get tested prior to the workday.

Dr. David Persse, with the City of Houston Health Authority, said issues with when samples can be shipped also play a role into what time testing sites are open.

"For our sites, the latest possible pickup is at 5 p.m., otherwise we have to hold them overnight," Persse said. "The problem with holding them overnight is that every time you do that, you run the risk of degradation of the samples, (so) in order to get the most accurate sample, you got to get them to the lab quickly."

He said many of the tests go to local labs, where the turnaround is about 48 hours, but for samples that have to be shipped to the national labs, there's already a delay due to shipping times, and the city doesn't want to do anything that could delay the testing further by waiting to send samples until the following day because they were collected in the evening.

Persse said the large testing sites in Houston, at Butler Stadium and Delmar Stadium, are actually seeing a decrease in traffic. Both sites require residents to first register by calling 832-393-4220. They're open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday through Saturday, according to the latest information on the city's website.

"For the folks who are working, hopefully they're not working seven days a week and they can find at least one day of the week where they can go," Persse said. "There is capacity pretty much every day of the week, so the day that you're not working, you should be able to get tested."
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