Coronavirus testing experiences a mixed bag in SLO County

Jul 13, 2020

Despite weeks of assurances from county and state officials, not everybody who wants a COVID-19 test can get one, especially now. On July 9 San Luis Obispo County’s health officer said there’s not enough capacity to meet the huge increase in demand for testing, and she asked people with no symptoms to not seek a test at this time, only essential workers.

Getting tested for the virus can widely vary in cost, wait times and experience depending where you go, and sometimes, what type of insurance you have.

San Luis Obispo resident Madi Beagle said she and her roommates were reached by county health officials through contact tracing, saying she had been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

“We all got tested at the public health department, it was free,” Beagle said. “We were supposed to hear back within 24 hours, but they are only calling people who are positive, and all three of my roommates ended up coming back positive and I came back negative.”

Since Beagle was still living with her now COVID-19-positive roommates, she had to get another test. She called around for an appointment, but the earliest one was a week later at the MedStop in Atascadero.

While she says she feels her experience was safe and organized, this time her test was not free and she was asked to show insurance.

“I am more worried about my health than my financial burden of it right now,” Beagle said “So when the bill comes I’m just going to deal with it and I’m just hoping it’s not going to be crazy.”

The MedStop in San Luis Obispo said someone without insurance who wants a test will be looking at a $150 test fee, as well as an additional $100 lab fee.

But according  county health spokesperson Michelle Shoresman, under a March 5 state order, health care providers are not supposed to charge for COVID-19 tests.

“There should be no cost for COVID-19 testing in California,” Shoresman said. “Whether or not all providers know that, I can’t say. We do our best to get the message out about that.”

While San Luis Obispo County offers free pop up testing sites each week, you have to make an appointment ahead of time, and they only allow a certain amount of people per day. Even then, results may take much longer than promised.

One KCBX staffer made an appointment at a pop up center at the Morro Bay’s Vet Hall. The test experience itself, she says, was great—quick, efficient, easy—but she didn’t get her results until 12 days later.

According to Shoresman, SLO County testing sites are “contracted through the state and other entities. Although at some sites, county public health staff are doing the swabbing, the tests are being sent to outside laboratories to process.”

Pismo Beach visitor Araon Bowers says he was tested for COVID-19 through a drive-up test site in the Bay Area. Although it was free, there you have to be one of the first 200 people in line, with testing opening at 9 a.m.

“I got there at 7, and there were already 30 cars ahead of me,” Bowers said.

It took him three hours of waiting in line in his car, but he says it was the only place he could get a test

“No appointments were available,” Bowers said. “ So I just had to bite the bullet and wait in line.”

For essential workers, SLO County health officials maintain that as long as appointments are made in advance, the wait shouldn’t be for more than a few minutes and results are expected in five to seven days. And while there won’t be a charge, if you do have insurance, some centers will ask to bill the insurance company.