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EDITORIAL: Let’s keep COVID-19 testing free, handy between surges

EDITORIAL: Let’s keep COVID-19 testing free, handy between surges

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While local governments make plans to spend allocations from the massive COVID-19 federal relief program known as the American Rescue Plan, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District quietly ended community testing clinics on Friday, citing a lack of demand as cases decline in our community.

The city of Waco, among other things, plans to use part of its $34 million in COVID-19 money for new generators to back up its municipal water supply. An important step, no doubt. McLennan County commissioners pledged from their $49 million in COVID-19 relief money $3 million to help MHMR fund a mental health crisis unit and another $2.5 million toward Waco Family Medicine’s campaign to fund a new facility. MHMR’s mental health crisis hotline has been of tremendous help to a lot of people during the pandemic and Waco Family Medicine’s leadership role is beyond question. Their stated goals for new facilities are worthy projects.

As for the rest of the ARP money?

Here’s a suggestion: Set up a full-time COVID-19 testing site that’s open late and on weekends, 100% free, and doesn’t go away between surges. Strike a deal with My Labs Direct, which operates a local lab in partnership with Baylor University. Make it crystal clear to everyone that testing is available, free and easy to do. All the time.

The current delta surge began in late July and by Aug. 12 there were more than 1,000 active cases in our county. Two days later, the public health district announced it would bring back community testing sites. Another week lapsed before the sites were up and running — almost a month after the surge began.

Testing has been a patchwork of confusion over availability and cost locally since the pandemic began. Tests may be free, but the mandatory consultation fee is not. One insurance plan pays for a test, another does not. We saw a good indication of COVID-19 testing costs last month when one of the contractors mistakenly billed 2,000 customers tested at the McLennan Community College site $85 each.

There can be no ambiguity on testing. It must be available seven days a week and free to everyone. Insurance should play no role.

It should also stay put. Mobile vaccination clinics around the city and county make sense. Alternating testing sites do not.

We’ve now seen three case surges during this pandemic, each more severe than the one before it. It’s naive to think there won’t be another while we argue over masks and vaccinations. In the meantime, the virus is still here and circulating in our community. The delta variant spread more quickly than previous variations of the virus — too quickly to wait weeks for testing sites to become operational.

September saw record highs for total cases (6,220), active cases (2,151), deaths (107) and hospitalizations (average 179 per day) as the delta surge punished a largely unvaccinated population. Too many of us are no longer interested in applying public health standards to daily life.

Even as health officials continue to increase vaccinations among our neighbors, co-workers and friends, federal funding makes it viable to make COVID-19 testing a convenient constant in our community until the pandemic ends.

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