As Buncombe County plunges deeper into the COVID-19 omicron wave, leaders are encouraging people to get vaccinated and boosted first and get tested often.
That's getting harder as case numbers skyrocket.
Following holiday gatherings and in the wake of a new variant that spreads quickly but with less severe symptoms, the percent positivity rate in Buncombe is now at 13.7% with a seven-day case average of 654 new cases per 100,000 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 3.
Are tests available right now?
Testing is limited locally, something public health officials haven't been shy about noting.
Buncombe County Public Health Director Stacie Saunders emphasized in an update to county commissioners Jan. 4 and again in a media Q&A Jan. 5 that the unprecedented surge in cases is causing backups and people seeking tests should expect long lines and waits.
"That is not necessarily a capacity problem," she said. "What we're seeing now is a level of cases we have never seen before."
Many clinics are experiencing this surge first-hand, including the Mountain Area Health Education Center Acute Care Clinic at 121 Hendersonville Road.
MAHEC spokesperson Jennifer Maurer confirmed the situation there is unprecedented.
"Currently testing availability is limited in our Acute Care Clinic due to an unprecedented volume of requests. We have increased our testing volume to 150 tests per day, but we are getting requests that far exceed that number," Maurer said in a Jan. 5 email.
On Jan. 3 alone, the clinic received 580 calls, Maurer said. Daily, it's getting 200 more calls than the same time in 2021.
Though many sites remain operational, residents should call or make an appointment before they decide to get tested given each location may have different standards, wait times or procedures.
Though many first-come, first-served testing sites are plagued by long waits, most sites now have online appointment sign-up options.
Where can I get tested?
Those are all available at North Carolina's COVID test site finder.
That finder includes these locations:
The same goes for many urgent care facilities including Mercy Urgent Care locations in east, south, west Asheville and Weaverville.
Mountain Area Health Education Center Acute Care Clinic at 121 Hendersonville Road also is providing testing by appointment for established patients.
Harrah's Cherokee center at 87 Haywood St. is hosting StarMed Healthcare COVID testing, but testing availability has been limited there.
Other testing locations spread throughout the county include May's Care Center at 225 Patton Ave., CommunityLab at 2 Trident Drive in Arden, Pardee Urgent Care at 2695 Hendersonville Road in Arden and Range Urgent Care at 201 NC-9 in Black Mountain.
Other COVID testing locations may be available outside of the site finder tool.
How do I test at home?
Outside of testing sites, residents can also get tested at home, which Saunders has discussed in-depth on several occasions recently.
Those who aren't able to leave their homes can order tests online.
Some self-tests require people to send a specimen for a lab, registering in an online portal for results that will come back within days.
These tests are available at local pharmacies and promoted at the state's test location finder.
Saunders said people testing themselves need to get a "good sample" -- they should put the swab into a nostril until they feel resistance and rub it in a circle four times -- to get accurate results. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published a self-testing guide to supplement the growing popularity of these tests.
Another kind of test is the "rapid antigen" at-home test.
These are fast, but they need "sufficient viral loads" to show accurate results, Saunders noted, and are best used by people who have obvious COVID symptoms.
At-home test costs are covered by most insurance providers.
For those who don't have insurance, the federal government will often work with local clinics to pay for tests, according to Buncombe County information and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
What if your at-home test is suspiciously expensive?
At-home test scarcity prompted a warning from North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein Jan. 5. He urged people to report at-home test price gouging online at the North Carolina Department of Justice website.
“If you are shopping for COVID-19 tests or other pandemic-related goods and services in the coming weeks and see excessive prices, let my office know," Stein said in a news release. "I have already taken successful action against those who attempt to unlawfully take advantage of North Carolinians during this crisis, and I will not hesitate to in the future.”
The release noted North Carolina’s price-gouging statute prohibits charging too much for goods and services during a crisis and will be in effect under Executive Order 245 until April 5.
At-home test kit prices at CVS and Walgreen's online stores are selling as low as about $25 to as high as about $125.
What happens next?
Saunders said during the Jan. 5 Q&A that BCHHS expects to receive a shipment of 5,000 tests "next week." These will likely be distributed at community centers in the coming weeks, she said.
Though it is difficult to predict when pandemic will wane and wax, Mission Health Chief Medical Officer William Hathaway told Buncombe commissioners during a Jan. 4 briefing that Mission Health Network parent company HCA has conducted and reviewed studies leading them to believe it could be four weeks before new infections begin to decline.
According to national data, new cases numbers across the nation are astronomically higher than they've been since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Biden administration before the holidays said the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be sending more resources to every state in the coming months, including new vaccination sites.
Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow or reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Scarcity, lines, scams: What to know about COVID tests in Asheville