COVID testing sites in Silicon Valley overwhelmed by demand
Hundreds of cars snaked around the parking lot of the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds following the Christmas weekend, as residents scramble to find COVID-19 tests. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Amid increasing concerns over the transmissibility of the omicron variant, many Santa Clara County residents in the South Bay are scrambling to find free COVID-19 testing during the holidays.

“We were told that there would be a surge during the holidays, and we’re definitely seeing that surge now since at least (last) Thursday,” Sherie Call, the lead nurse at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, told San José Spotlight.

On late Monday morning following the Christmas weekend, hundreds of cars snaked around the parking lot of the fairgrounds, the county’s largest testing site, inching their way through the testing tents.

“Right now is the biggest spike in demand this year,” Call said. “It’s been so busy, but we try to move as quickly as possible.”

According to the county’s booking portal, the fairgrounds in San Jose has run out of slots through the end of the year as of Monday morning. Testing appointments at drugstores like CVS are also completely booked for the week. Residents might still be able to snag a spot on Friday at the county’s testing site in Gilroy, which is the only site with available appointments for this week.

Residents wait in line for COVID testing appointments at the fairgrounds. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

The fairgrounds, which operates as a drive-thru testing site, is doing roughly 3,500 tests a day, Call said. That’s a big jump from the previous weeks, when testing was between 1,500 and 1,800 daily, county officials said.

“Testing is an important part in defending our community against COVID-19 and everyone is encouraged to be tested if they are exposed to an individual or they have symptoms,” county officials told San José Spotlight.

This week, Santa Clara County will begin handing out 90,000 free at-home COVID test kits from the state to areas with the highest infection rates, such as East San Jose and Gilroy. Private companies, such as Lookout Health, are offering group and individual testing options, but those are not free.

The recent surge in demand for COVID testing comes as the omicron variant rapidly spreads across the nation and drives up infections. The county is seeing 327 new cases over a seven-day average, with more than 1,000 infections reported on Dec. 23 alone.

More than 81% of the county population is fully vaccinated, and roughly half of those eligible for a booster shot—more than 670,000 people—have gotten one.

Elio Rahb and his mom, Elizabeth, had to wait more than a week before they found an appointment for a COVID-19 test in Gilroy. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Expanded testing capacity

Santa Clara County has tested between 4,500 to 5,000 people a day this past week. Officials said the county is not lacking in testing supplies, but there are only so many people they could test daily. The county ramped up its testing efforts last week and site managers are looking to add more slots depending on staff and infrastructure capacity.

For some residents, the expanded capacity is still not enough to meet the area’s demand.

Elio Rahb and his family were exposed to COVID more than a week ago, Rahb told San José Spotlight. They couldn’t find any testing appointments in Santa Clara last week, so when the county added slots to the Gilroy site, Rahb jumped on it to register his mom and his partner. But by the time he finished registering them, all the spots for the day had run out, and he couldn’t get an appointment for himself.

“So I’ll still have to wait until January to get myself tested,” he said after getting his mom to the Gilroy testing site Monday afternoon.

The testing site in Gilroy has also seen a huge jump in demand since last week, from 250 to 300 tests a day to 1,100 to 1,300 tests a day, site manager Crystal Haney said.

“We’re overwhelmed,” Haney told San José Spotlight. “I think we’re completely booked up through at least Wednesday.”

Many families drove south from San Jose to get tested. Trung, a San Jose resident who declined to give his last name, brought his family of four to Gilroy for testing after recent exposure.

“Luckily we found the appointments,” he told San José Spotlight. “It wasn’t so stressful.”

COVID-19 testing appointments have been booked up in Santa Clara County during the holiday season. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Kaitlyn Moara, another San Jose resident, was also joined by her siblings and father Monday afternoon. They were exposed right before the holiday weekend, but couldn’t find an appointment until this week.

“I didn’t mind driving all the way here,” Moara said. “We just want to be sure that we’re safe.”

County officials recommend residents keep checking in for new appointments.

“People can also try to walk in because we might have availability,” Haney said. “But there’s no guarantee.”

Santa Clara County residents can make COVID-19 testing appointments through this link.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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