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'We absolutely right now cannot keep up with all the demand' | Shortage in employees makes it tough to test everyone for COVID-19

A shortage in employees--not test kits--is making it difficult to screen everyone.

ST. LOUIS — What’s testing the health care system? It turns out, not just the surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, but the number of people trying to get tested.

“We absolutely right now cannot keep up with all the demand,” said Dr. Troy Dinkel, president and chief medical officer at Total Access Urgent Care. 

The local health care group has 26 locations around the St. Louis area. They say their centers have conducted nearly 8% of the total tests done in the state of Missouri. 

TAUC made COVID-19 tests available to anyone who wants one since May—but that's been harder to do lately, often hitting testing capacity for the day, well before noon.

"The pandemic has put us in a tough spot. We never want anyone to wait. We never want to say that we're at capacity for testing," said Dr. Dinkel. “We really would love to meet the need. It's just that there's 2.8 million people in our wonderful city and there's 560 of us."

The shortage of health care workers impacts all angles of the fight against the coronavirus, and that includes the ability to administer tests.

“So you remember early on the pandemic, it was PPE and testing, right? Those were the two big ones,” said Dr. Alex Garza of the Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. “Now we're ok with PPE and we're ok with testing. Now we don't have staff."

Total Access employees are able to test about 1,500 people a day--1,700 in their busiest day of the last two weeks. Dr. Dinkel says his staff sees about 30% more patients than a typical busy day, and about 100 employees have gotten COVID-19 themselves. Simply put: they’re working as hard as possible to keep testing widely accessible, but it’s just not sustainable.

“These are teams that are historically busy without any end in sight,” he said.

With more people looking to get tested---often, to go back to work, or ahead of an in-person gathering--clinics are hiring: not just nurses and doctors, but pharmacy technicians, EMTs and medical assistants who can help administer the tests.

A CVS spokesperson says the company has hired thousands to help with the surge in patients expected due to demand for COVID-19 testing and flu shots. About 250 of those jobs are in the St. Louis area.

“We're going to do everything we can to, you know, to continue to meet that need,” said Dr. Dinkel.

Total Access is even offering perks like tuition assistance to offset this latest COVID-19 shortage.

“We’re really expanding things, focused on the EMTs, so that we can really get young people opportunities to be employed and to learn life skills and to and help us take care of many more patients.”

In the meantime, if you're having trouble getting a test, try calling different clinic locations, consulting your primary care physician, and showing up early in the morning to beat the rush.

If the test is because you're really concerned you might have COVID-19, go ahead and start your quarantine anyway. 

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