When Donna Barker went through her coronavirus protocol last week for this year’s Christmas gathering, she realized she was missing something — enough rapid COVID-19 tests for all her guests. 

It didn’t matter as much last year, when she spent the day watching movies and walking through Discovery Park with her husband and college-age daughter, who had been home attending virtual classes for weeks.

This year, however, her daughter is flying home from California and Barker is planning to see several other close friends. Everyone has had a booster, she said Monday, but after hearing about the swift spread of the omicron variant, Barker wants each guest to take a rapid test 30 minutes before entering her home.

Barker started driving and calling around to pharmacies late last week, ultimately stopping in at five different pharmacies between Renton and Seattle — that doesn’t include the shopping she did online. The phone at one store was answered with, “Yes, we have rapid tests,” Barker said.

By the end of the day, she and her husband spent over $400 and accumulated over 40 rapid tests for her family as well as others.

Barker is one of many Seattleites scrambling for rapid antigen tests or testing appointments this holiday season, which has seen demand soar over the past few weeks as gatherings pick up and omicron surges through the community, according to public health and city leaders.

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Early testing and vaccinations will play a particularly important role this winter, Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a Monday afternoon news briefing, though she acknowledged ongoing challenges in securing at-home rapid tests — obstacles that existed before the emergence of the newest variant.

“All of us are still learning about omicron, from the scientists to the researchers, but we know it is here in Seattle. It is spreading quickly and we are projected to reach a new pandemic case high as early as next week,” she said. “But this winter is very different than last winter’s surge because we have vaccinations, vaccine verifications and testing.”

As of last week, about 90% of Seattle residents had received at least one vaccine dose, one of the highest rates in the country, Durkan said. About 65% of kids 5 and older are fully vaccinated, and nearly 50% of those eligible have received booster shots.

Statewide, more than 80% of Washingtonians 12 and up have received at least one vaccine dose.

“But we know this virus is not done with us,” Durkan said.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

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Omicron still on the rise

As of Monday, omicron was likely accounting for about 70% of all positive coronavirus samples tested at the University of Washington’s clinical virology lab — the largest genomic sequencing lab in the state, said Alex Greninger, the assistant director of the University of Washington’s clinical virology lab who’s been sequencing the variant since the beginning of the pandemic.

For the past few weeks, the UW lab has been searching for omicron by tracking samples carrying a particular spike-gene mutation, a notable deletion in the variant’s spike protein. While the alpha variant of the coronavirus also carries the mutation, the deletion has become “almost synonymous with omicron” because of the increasing percentage of these cases in the last few weeks, Greninger said.

Last week, about 40% of coronavirus samples had the mutation. The week before, about 13%.

Monday’s results mean omicron is likely responsible for more than half of new COVID-19 infections — and Greninger is expecting the number to continue shooting up as the week unfolds.

“Starting this week, we’re expecting almost all positives will be omicron,” he said during the Monday briefing.

Infections, meanwhile, have increased 93% in King County in the last seven days, according to the county’s data dashboard. Hospitalizations and deaths are still on the decline, though both generally see at least about a two-week delay after infection trends change.

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The recent surge has pushed the county back into a “high transmission” category, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as over 100 cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days, said Dennis Worsham, interim director for Public Health — Seattle & King County.

“We are expecting to see an increasing number of infections, even among people who have had COVID in the past or breakthrough infections in vaccinated people,” Worsham said Monday.

Testing obstacles

During the news briefing, Worsham echoed Durkan’s call for early testing and vaccinations throughout the holiday season, noting a current “high demand” for COVID-19 tests in King County.

Seattle resident Lucy Moroukian, 25, said she started looking for a rapid test when she woke up with a scratchy throat last week and began hearing news of the omicron variant. 

Each place told her they were sold out until the following week. 

“Every time I go to a store, I get more and more discouraged that it’s not worth searching harder because they’re not anywhere anyway,” Moroukian, who lives on Capitol Hill, said Monday.

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She eventually tracked down a rapid test and tested negative for the coronavirus, but when her condition worsened over the weekend, she scheduled an appointment for a PCR test.

Now, she’s waiting on results — but because of testing demand, she’s worried an answer won’t come before her scheduled Christmas Eve flight home to Minnesota. If that’s the case, Moroukian plans to spend Christmas on her own in Seattle. 

“I have grandparents who are in their late 80s and a brother who’s under 10,” she said. “It just feels like too big of a risk.”

While Durkan and Worsham said Monday they’re doing their best to make sure tests and vaccinations are accessible this winter, Moroukian said her experience had been far from easy.

In order to find a $25 rapid test, Moroukian said she had to take time off from her job at a greenhouse and plant nursery — where she has lots of face-to-face interactions with customers — which pays $16.69 an hour and offers no paid sick leave.

“It’s insane to me that our government is not making it more accessible to test before we go in public or go to work,” she said.

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A Bartell’s spokesperson said in a Monday statement that the Pacific Northwest drugstore chain has seen “an increasingly high demand” for coronavirus rapid testing.

“While rapid at-home testing kits are often the most convenient option, demand is simply outpacing supply from manufacturers in many parts of the country,” the statement said. “As we receive shipments, we are quickly making rapid at-home testing kits available to our customers.”

Spokespeople for Walgreens and CVS also reported recent increases in demand for at-home tests.

Monica Prinzing, spokesperson for CVS’ western region, said Monday that when one of its stores runs out of tests, there’s a “process in place to rapidly replenish supply,” but didn’t elaborate on the process.

Bartell’s encouraged those in the Seattle area unable to find at-home testing kits to visit their drive-thru testing sites instead.

Securing appointments

In the Puget Sound region, UW Medicine runs 11 testing sites, with “high-volume” locations in Lake Sammamish State Park, which opened last week, and in Shoreline, which opened last month. All sites are open every day during the holidays, except Christmas and New Year’s Day, and three of the sites are open on Sundays.

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To make an appointment at one of the UW testing sites, visit uwmedicine.org/coronavirus/testing. Greninger encouraged people to make appointments online first, but said many of the sites also take walk-ups.

Appointments are also available in Auburn, Bellevue, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Renton, SeaTac and Tukwila; for information, go to kingcounty.gov.

“Testing is very important for your health, as well as for us to have the data that gets reported to [Public Health — Seattle & King County] so our policymakers can inform their responses as we go along in this pandemic,” Greninger said.