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Fewer Places Offering COVID-19 Tests For People Without Symptoms

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A patient pulls out a swab at a mobile testing site in Pittsburgh's South Hills.

It’s getting harder to get tested for COVID-19 without symptoms in the Pittsburgh region. The Allegheny County Health Department suggests people who think they may have been exposed but are not experiencing symptoms skip the test and instead quarantine for 14 days.

There are some exceptions to that recommendation, such as first responders or medical workers. Those who can’t quarantine should get tested, according to the County, but those cases are considered the lowest priority. 

Scientists say asymptomatic people can unknowingly spread the novel coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 40 percent of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic.

Allegheny Health Network testing centers now require a physician referral prior to administering a test. Amy Crawford-Faucher, vice chair of AHN’s Primary Care Institute, said AHN’s mobile testing unit was offering asymptomatic tests, but stopped during the first week of July when cases in Allegheny County began to surge.

“We probably will have to change the ability to do asymptomatic testing based on how many symptomatic people we have in our region,” she said.  “And I think that's just going to go up and down over the next several months."

AHN hopes to resume asymptomatic testing when supplies allow, according to Crawford-Faucher. For now, patients must be experiencing at least one of the symptoms of COVID-19 for a physician to refer a patient to one of AHN’s testing centers.

UPMC has a similar policy that requires a physician referral. A spokesperson said the health provider does, however, offer COVID-19 tests to residents at their senior communities and to patients receiving essential procedures at UPMC facilities, regardless of symptoms.

Both UPMC and AHN request people not come to hospitals for COVID-19 tests, but rather visit their designated testing centers. UPMC has nine testing locations throughout the state, including on Pittsburgh's South Side. In addition to its mobile testing unit, AHN has six testing locations in Pittsburgh and one in Erie.

But some providers in the area are still offering asymptomatic testing.

MedExpress has 10 centers in the Pittsburgh region and seven of them administer COVID-19 tests regardless of symptoms.

Each site has a supply of tests based on that specific center’s demand, according to Jane Trombetta, the chief clinical officer at MedExpress Urgent Care. She said some days, sites have had to cut off all testing  when supplies ran out, but that MedExpress locations will continue testing asymptomatic people for now.  

“[If] testing supplies got really tight, we might have to [stop testing asymptomatic people], but we would definitely want to share that on our website and put signage up,” she said.

“We take people as they arrive,” she said regarding screenings and prioritizing done by other providers. “As long as supplies last.” Trombetta advises people to call a testing center ahead or visit their website for a virtual visit where appointments can be scheduled and people can use the MedExpress coronavirus self-checker.

People without symptoms who need a COVID-19 test can also head to a dozen local CVS and Rite Aid pharmacy locations. A spokesman for Rite Aid said the pharmacy follows federal Health and Human Services guidelines, which still recommend asymptomatic testing for the virus. Both pharmacies require people fill out forms online and schedule appointments online.

MedExpress administers around 210 to 350 COVID-19 tests per day among its seven testing sites in the Pittsburgh area; AHN runs about 600 tests system-wide per day and UPMC runs nearly 2,000 COVID 19 tests system-wide per day. A spokesman for Rite Aid declined to provide specific testing data for the Pittsburgh region. CVS did not respond to request for comment.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.