Saturday, June 6, 2020 protests against police violence in Washington D.C. Protesters near the Lincoln Memorial.
Lourdes Olivencia, along with tens of thousands of others, went downtown on Saturday to protest the police killing of George Floyd. On Monday, she got a COVID-19 test at the free, walk-thru testing site at Judiciary Square.
"I feel absolutely fine... but I just feel like I have a responsibility" to get tested, says Olivencia, who's 29 and lives in Northwest.
Olivencia is one of many protesters who have gotten tested — or will be looking to get tested — this week in the D.C. region. Mayor Muriel Bowser has urged all protesters to do so, expressing concern about a spike in COVID-19 cases and a dip in numbers of those being tested.
These past 11 days have been historic, marked by protests, the deployment of military to D.C. streets, and calls for change — all of which happened in the middle of a pandemic of a virus that's highly transmissible.
While COVID-19 was on the minds of nearly all, many — including some medical professionals and public health experts — saw it as a risk worth taking as the country faces "two public health crises."
Most protesters wore masks and took precautions, but crowd sizes were large and social distancing was impossible at times. The Metropolitan Police Department has declined to provide crowd estimates, but it seems safe to say that Saturday alone saw numbers in the tens of thousands. And a vast majority of them appeared to be local.
"We are currently offering testing to anyone who needs a test," Bowser's office wrote in a statement to DCist/WAMU. "We literally bought the url needaTESTgetaTEST.com to highlight that if residents need a test, they can get a test."
According to the most recent numbers, about 6.5 percent of D.C.'s population has gotten a coronavirus test. Over the last week, an average of about 1,000 people are getting tested per day.
This week should see those testing numbers increase dramatically. The city currently has 11 free walk-up testing sites where appointments are not needed. This includes sites in Judiciary Square, Anacostia, and UDC-CC Bertie Backus Campus that are open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as eight fire houses that are now open as testing sites from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on varying days through June 15. (Appointments are necessary for drive-thru sites, meaning a car is required and patients must stay in the vehicle until administrated the test).
In addition, there are a number of private and insurance-provided testing sites available where appointments and referrals are needed.
On Monday, wait times ranged from 25 minutes to 2 hours and the process was orderly, professional, and well-staffed.
The Judiciary Square testing site opened on June 1. The fire house testing sites, which opened June 4, also had similar wait times and processes. Wait times did reach about an hour and a half, according to one report. Names, contact information, and addresses were taken, but no license or proof address was needed to be provided.
The mayor's office confirmed that anyone, and not just D.C. residents, can get a test at any of the walk-thru sites.
Dr. Amira Albert Roess, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, is doing research on COVID-19 antibody testing and advising companies on how to safely manage the pandemic. She recommends that everyone who went to the recent protests downtown get tested, though advises waiting a few days after going out.
"If you've been exposed, you might want to get tested [in between] days three and five," Roess says. "You might see symptoms develop two to 11 days after exposure."
In the meantime, she suggests self-quarantining, monitoring symptoms, and staying away from loved ones who may be at high risk. "Avoid being with vulnerable or elderly individuals or individuals who have underlying conditions," Roess says. "You're just going to want to assume that you've been exposed and may become infected."
It should take three to five days for a person to learn the results, according to the city.
Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County's chief of public health services, says he agrees with D.C. and Roess about the need for all who went to protest to get tested. Currently, all of the county's testing sites are drive-thrus that require an appointment and a doctor's order, and are only open select days — Gayles say that should change soon.
Gayles tells DCist/WAMU they are looking to expand capacity by deploying mobile test sites that won't require appointments or referrals to access. This could happen within the week. "Our goal is to create mobile testing so [it can] go into high volume zip codes and ... test as many people as possible," he says.
He also says that, much like D.C., Montgomery County is concentrating on testing those who may be asymptomatic. He cites the lack of understanding in the earlier days of the pandemic that even folks who weren't showing symptoms could spread the virus. "Quite frankly, that's probably one of the things that probably facilitated transmission," says Gayles. "All of the guidance that was provided was that if you're not symptomatic, then you're not transmitting. ... That wasn't necessarily true."
For Olivencia, who admits she was anxious about being around so many people during the crowded protests, the process of getting a test was not nearly as bad as she imagined it would be. It didn't take her long at the Judiciary Square site, she says. "It was very easy [and] simple. It was very well-structured," Olivencia says. "You don't feel unsafe at any point."
And the test itself? "It was kinda weird and not pleasant, but not a sacrifice," Olivencia says.
To ensure that she doesn't put others at risk, Olivencia isn't planning to go back out to the protests until she gets her results, which she expects in three to five days.
Chelsea Cirruzzo and Jenny Gathright contributed reporting to this story.