What you need to know about free COVID-19 testing sites in Houston

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- There's a new push for Houstonians to get tested for COVID-19 after sites saw fewer people in line.

On Wednesday, the Houston Health Department reported 349 new cases of COVID-19, bringing Houston's total to 58,903 cases. Wednesday, city officials also reported 10 deaths, bringing the city's total to 665 COVID-19 deaths. However, Mayor Sylvester Turner said fewer people were getting tested.

"There are plenty of testing sites in the Houston area. Five mega testing sites, 15 other additional testing sites all throughout the city of Houston," Mayor Turner said at the press conference on Wednesday. "Better to know than not to know, and at least 40% of people who are walking around in the city of Houston are without symptoms, no symptoms at all, feel fine, look great, but they are carrying this virus. So getting tested at a Houston Health Department affiliate is free and does not require proof of residence or citizenship, so (it) doesn't cost you anything."

ABC13 has previously reported the number of issues plaguing testing sites between June and July. Both the city and Harris County Public Health's testing sites were reaching capacity within hours of opening and labs were overwhelmed causing a significant delay in test result turnaround.

"We had quite a bit of traffic a month ago when tests became more available," Dr. Edward Rensimer, Director of the International Medicine Center said. "And I think that a lot of people got turned off to the fact that the turnaround on tests were really bad. We had people waiting for two weeks for results."

Harris County Public Health and Houston Health Department responded to ABC13 and said it has increased capacity at its testing sites. Harris County Public Health now uses a local lab to help decrease the turnaround time for test results. For its stationary sites, test results are received on average in three to five days. For its mobile sites, test results received in about two to four days.

For Houston Health Department operated sites, test results are expected in less than four days.

A spokesperson with the city's health department said there could be several factors as to why people are not getting tested and sent the following statement to ABC13 on Thursday:

"The number of people showing up to test sites has dropped off dramatically, a trend also seen across the Texas and the nation. It is the hope of the Houston Health Department that people don't interpret recent good news of a decline in Houston's daily positive cases, hospitalizations and the positivity rate as signs that they no longer need to seek COVID testing. The department encourages people to get tested for COVID-19, especially if they develop symptoms or are exposed to someone confirmed with the virus. Now is the perfect time to get tested since there are no waiting lines and there is more testing capacity in Houston than any time during the pandemic."

Harris County Public Health also gave ABC13 an inside look at a mobile and a stationary testing site. The staff have been facing several challenges in the field including battling the extreme heat, exhaustion, and even at times patients in distress, while waiting in line for a test.

"Right now the heat index is about 105 and it's only getting worse as we go into the day," Dakota Ferrera, a Stationary Site Co-manager said. "That's why we actually had to lower our hours to early in the morning, so that we could get a better start with less heat."

At the mobile sites, the nurses administer the nasal swab tests to the patients and that's why they wear full gear of PPE or Personal Protective Equipment to protect themselves and the patients. Due to the heat and full gear, the nurses switch shifts frequently so they can take breaks. The staging areas are also supplied with water, fans, cooling towels and an air conditioned bus, according to Harris County Public Health.

"A lot of us have our own families to tend to also," Safety Officer Yesenia Martinez said. "We know, the way we would like our family to be treated that's how we try to treat our clients here."

Dr. Edward Rensimer said it's important for people to self-isolate while waiting for test results and then follow-up after receiving the results with a medical professional.

"I'd say the biggest misconception is that a negative test means you don't have it," Dr. Rensimer said. "In a person who has no symptoms who had a contact, they've been exposed. Let's say your brother comes down with a positive COVID-19 test but you're feeling great. If you get tested within four days of that contact, there will be about a 40% false-negative even if the test is collected very well."

He said it is encouraging that hand washing, mask wearing and the public following the county and state mandates seem to be working in helping control the community spread of COVID-19.

Two testing sites opened at apartment complexes in Houston's Sunnyside neighborhood on Thursday.

At the press conference, Congressman Al Green said more needs to be done when it comes to testing accessibility and he is working with the city and community leaders to reach areas where people are struggling to get to testing sites.

"I think that we have to get to a point where anyone who wants a test can get the test on the same day. I call it testing on demand," Green said.

For more information on testing sites, visit: Harris County Public Health, Houston Health Department or Texas Department of State Health Services.
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