TUKWILA — On Tuesday afternoon, cars piled into the parking lot of a nondenominational church that has transformed into a coronavirus testing site. Helpers stationed along the winding lines were encased in plastic coverings. Walk-through patients were tested in white event tents in the middle of the parking lot. The scene resembled a well-organized tailgating party, but everyone stayed in their vehicles and there was no music.

The lines were overwhelming until the Tukwila site went appointment-only, said firefighter and site manager Jeff Nichols. Patients with reservations had to wait up to 45 minutes for a test this week, compared to last week when wait times rose to three hours.

As COVID-19 cases have spiked throughout King County, particularly in the south, wait times for coronavirus testing have increased in recent weeks. As a result, sites in Tukwila, Renton and Federal Way have shifted to appointment-only to accommodate the increased demand for testing. Public Health — Seattle & King County also opened a site at Des Moines’ Highline College last Friday, and plans to open a testing location on the Eastside in December.

More staff have been hired and new car lanes have been added to existing sites. Overall, the county’s efforts have helped reduce wait times. But as cases continue to climb, the solutions remain in flux.

Anecdotally, Nichols has heard that people were scheduling appointments ahead of travel plans and holiday gatherings. “There’s a lot of people who believe that getting tested gives them a pass to socialize with people they don’t usually socialize with,” said Nichols.

But he didn’t entirely attribute the surge in patients to Thanksgiving. He pointed to a chart on the wall of the site’s break room, which showed blue lines that grew taller throughout the weeks. According to his numbers, nearly 200 people were tested every day a month ago. On Nov. 23, the daily numbers had jumped fourfold.

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“Whether or not you put a holiday in there, I guarantee you the numbers will climb,” he said.

Public Health said that patients in the center of Seattle are more likely to cite travel as a reason for testing than people in South King County.

“As cases in King County have grown exponentially, so has demand for testing, so we expect the increases in testing demand to get progressively larger each day until the outbreak is turned around,” said Public Health spokesperson Kate Cole. Winter viruses that produce symptoms similar to COVID-19 may also encourage people to get tested, she added.

Cole attributed higher COVID-19 transmission rates in South King County to “long-standing systemic inequities, many of which stem from structural racism.” South King County has a larger number of people of color in essential worker jobs and more people living in multigenerational homes than in other parts of the county, which Cole said could contribute to a higher likelihood of transmission. Historical public health and resource inequities also may lead to higher risk of COVID-19 complications for South King County residents.

SeaTac has one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the county at 4,201.5 positive results per 100,000 residents, compared to Seattle’s rate of 1,441.2 per 100,000 people, as of Nov. 27. Yet SeaTac residents must go to Des Moines or Tukwila to receive a test, since a free site is not based in the city.

Cole said that test site locations are chosen based on the percentage of residents who have the coronavirus, as well as the availability of testing, and socioeconomic factors that could increase transmission risk or complications. The Tukwila site was designed to serve residents from Tukwila and SeaTac, which may also account for the increased visitors and wait times.

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SeaTac Deputy Mayor Peter Kwon said that the lack of a site in the city has led to hardships for residents. “I know folks who want to get tested, but they feel that it’s too far to go north or south,” he said. Some of them lack access to cars and don’t want to use public transportation.

“If we had a testing site in the city of SeaTac, I’m sure that more people would get tested,” said Kwon.

Access to testing is also key for travelers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: Airlines have created testing options in surrounding areas in an effort to meet the COVID-free entry requirements for certain destinations. This week, Hawaiian Airlines announced a partnership with US BioTek to offer drive-thru and walk-up preflight testing in Shoreline, Redmond and Tacoma. Nasal swab or saliva tests may be purchased, and results are received within 36 hours to bypass a mandatory quarantine in Hawaii.  

For now, Kwon and other SeaTac residents will need to continue to go outside of the city for free testing. On Tuesday morning, he got a test at the Tukwila site’s walk-up line, where he said that he was in and out of the tent in 25 minutes.

Correction: The story had been corrected to reflect the accurate rate of positive COVID-19 results per 100,000.