King County will purchase an additional 400,000 coronavirus test kits, for a total of 700,000 tests that the county will soon distribute through libraries, health centers, senior centers and community groups, the county announced Wednesday.
The tests, which will begin to arrive next week, come amid a local and national shortage, as the highly transmissible omicron variant of the virus sweeps the country.
Case counts have skyrocketed in recent weeks, but hospitalizations and, especially, deaths, have not, as those who are fully vaccinated and boosted generally have not seen severe symptoms.
King County Executive Dow Constantine said the test purchases are meant to supplement tests available through pharmacies, hospitals and testing centers.
“We hope this takes some pressure off of that distribution network,” Constantine said. “Obviously, even 700,000 — which sounds like a lot — is not a huge number in a county of 2.3 million.”
The county is paying for the 700,000 tests, at an estimated cost of $5.3 million, with money from its general fund, but plans to apply for federal reimbursement, Constantine said.
The tests, once they arrive, will be free for the public, and the county will focus distribution on “the most vulnerable communities, so that we can get testing to folks who might otherwise not have access,” Constantine said.
Community groups that want tests to distribute should reach out to the county at email@example.com, the county said.
City- and county-operated testing sites have frequently had high volumes and long wait times in recent weeks. And many pharmacies throughout the region have taken to posting signs on their doors that say, “Sorry no home COVID tests available.”
UW Medicine announced last week it would limit testing appointments only to those with COVID-19 symptoms or known exposures, as it said “astronomically high” positivity rates were taxing its capabilities.
In King County, reported COVID case counts have spiked by more than 800% in the last month. But COVID hospitalizations have grown much more slowly, from an average of eight one month ago to 26 as of Dec. 31, the most recent figure available.
And deaths from the virus have not yet increased in King County amid the surge. One month ago, about three people per day were dying from COVID-19; the most recent available figure is half that.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, particularly if you’ve gotten your booster, even if you become infected you have a very good chance of not having severe consequences,” Constantine said.
Vaccinations are free and health insurance is not required.
Since January 2021, people who are not fully vaccinated were 13 times more likely to be hospitalized and to die from the virus than those who are fully vaccinated, according to King County data.
But the increasing caseloads still have the potential to stretch hospitals thin, especially as health care workers become infected and are forced to stay home.
“Hospital capacity is not what it was a year ago or two years ago,” Constantine said. “That’s the thing I’m worried about; that’s the concern I have is that we’re going to run out of hospital space.”