Is This the End of Public COVID Testing Sites in Tampa Bay?

TARPON SPRINGS — Those in search of a free, walk-in COVID-19 testing site in Pinellas County may have recently ventured into the county’s northern reaches and expected a familiar scene: orange cones directing traffic, medical Personnel decked out in personal protective equipment.

Instead, they found an empty parking lot.

That’s all that surrounded St. Timothy Lutheran Church Monday morning, when Tarpon Springs Church was still listed on Pinellas County’s website as the only public testing site in the county — which would have made it the only remaining in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

At the end of the day, Pinellas County had the church off its list and now. Like Hillsborough, it now directs those wanting to get tested to pharmacies as well as emergency centers.

Related: Tampa Bay has ‘high’ COVID levels, masks recommended indoors
All was quiet Monday at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Tarpon Springs, which was listed as a walk-in COVID-19 testing site. After a Times reporter found the website down, Pinellas County removed the church from an online listing of testing sites. [ JACK EVANS | Times ]

The barren tarmac outside of St. Timothy marks, at least for now, the end of the kind of testing apparatus that dominated at the beginning of the pandemic, a public health patchwork run by cities, counties, and companies and organizations that have received government funding. The Tropicana Field and Raymond James Stadium locations once drew winding lines of cars, but demand has fallen sharply.

The city of St. Petersburg ended testing at Tropicana Field in February. The last location contracted by Pinellas County, in Largo, closed in late March, said Tom Iovino, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. Hillsborough County closed its last public proving ground in March.

“Sometimes locations were only seeing one person per day” before they closed months ago, said Ryan Terry, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Department of Health. “That’s not an exaggeration.”

People can now get free at-home testing kits from the federal government or make an appointment at a pharmacy. Pasco County is still promoting a drive-through proving ground at Port Richey’s Gulf View Square mall that’s open seven days a week.

Or they avoid being tested at all. The United States is now seeing another spike in COVID-19 cases, and rates in Tampa Bay are “high” by federal standards. But “people have their heads in the sand because of the coronavirus,” said Jill Roberts, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

There’s also “this tremendous shift from state and county responsibility and government responsibility to individual responsibility,” Roberts said. “I think that message was sent by the closure of those locations.”

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Related: The US Postal Service is offering more free COVID tests in the mail

The closure of these locations coincided with the end of federal funding to cover COVID testing and treatment for the uninsured. Miami-Dade County announced in April that it would keep its free testing locations open using Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements; Borough Mayor Daniella Lavine Cava said that Miami Herald The county would “continue to make testing and vaccination as accessible as possible for those with or without insurance.”

However, Tampa Bay has fewer options for those without insurance. A test at a clinic or doctor’s office can cost more than $100 out of pocket, plus fees that might apply for sample collection or a doctor’s visit, Johns Hopkins University has found. And to order free home kits, a person still needs a home address and internet access.

“Although it seems very simple to many of us, prejudice still exists,” Roberts said. It’s another problem of access that could harm already highly vulnerable people, including those on low incomes and those without shelter.

Related: Florida COVID cases rise 53% Transmission levels in Tampa Bay are rising.

Pharmacy chains like Walgreens and CVS continue to offer free testing. And public test sites aren’t necessarily gone forever: Terry said they’re designed to activate quickly when demand increases.

A mystery surrounds the Tarpon Springs location. ID Tech Molecular Labs, which runs the site, has told local officials it’s still going, Iovino said. An ID Tech spokesman left a voicemail for a on Monday Tampa Bay Times Reporters said that the site is open for appointments only and that the signs on the site say so.

But one Times A reporter visited the church Monday and found no test-related signs or anything else that would indicate a test site. ID Tech’s spokesman did not respond to a follow-up call.

Church pastor Curt Snare confirmed Tuesday that the church is no longer a proving ground. The company that had provided the service was running out of government funding, he said. It closed weeks ago.

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How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you locate free, public COVID-19 testing sites in the Bay Area.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites across the state. Some information may be out of date.

The USA: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 years and older and booster shots for eligible recipients will be administered at doctor’s offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination centers. Many allow appointments to be booked online. To find a location near you:

Find a site: Visit Vaccines.gov to find vaccination centers in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Helpline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Information and access telephone for the disabled: Call 888-677-1199 or email [email protected]

• • •

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron has changed our knowledge of COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious variant of COVID-19 is affecting masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantine.

CHILDREN AND VACCINES: Do you have questions about your child’s vaccination? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused About Which COVID Booster To Get? This guide will help you.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there any side effects? why do i need it Here are the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: This is how seniors can protect themselves from the virus.

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