A Covid-19 testing site at FedEx Field in Prince George's County.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, many of the region's public COVID-19 testing sites were outside. Besides the occasional downpour and "heat exposure," the weather has generally cooperated.
But as temperatures dip and COVID-19 testing demand remains high, local officials are finding ways to "winterize" the outdoor testing sites.
In D.C., that means adding large tents with open flaps and heaters to all of the public testing sites, including firehouses, to keep both test-takers and staff comfortable, says Chris Geldart, the director of D.C.'s Department of Public Works.
Earlier this month, the District opened an additional testing site in the Geico Parking Garage at Nationals Park. This was done, according to Geldart, to allow people to be under cover and out of the elements while waiting in line for a test. Heaters will be scattered throughout that site to keep people warm.
With these measures in place, the city anticipates having public testing sites operating throughout the winter, no matter the cold or snow. Geldart says that at least the Judiciary Square and Nats Park sites can continue to provide testing through "a couple of inches of snow or some sleet."
Negative temperatures and a blizzard, he says, may close down testing centers for the day if only because "nobody's going to go out anyway."
And there are also no plans to move any public testing sites indoors this winter.
"It's going to remain outdoors. We believe that that's the safest way to do it," says Geldart.
But other local jurisdictions are moving inside.
In Arlington County, officials moved the public testing site at Arlington Mill Community Center almost entirely indoors in the late summer. It will remain that way through the winter, says the county's public affairs manager, Hannah Winant.
The second county-run site is drive-thru only on Quincy Street, where heaters and warm-up tents have been installed for staff.
Much like the rest of the region, demand prior to Thanksgiving was particularly high, says Winant. This led the county to increase staffing and to encourage folks to pre-register to avoid long waits outside in line.
"We want to move people through the line as quickly as we can," Winant says about the county's goals for testing through the winter, "We want them indoors as much as possible."
Arlington, additionally, is expanding hours and looking into setting up more sites — some of which may be indoors — to help shorten wait times at other sites, and in anticipation of another spike in demand ahead of the December holidays and New Year.
Montgomery County similarly moved six of its formerly outdoor public testing sites indoors last month ahead of the winter. "If you are indoors, you don't have to have weather cancellations," says the county's health and human services public information officer, Mary Anderson.
The county also partners with nonprofits on several sites, many of which will remain outdoors but will also be winterized with large tents, heaters, and temporary shelters for staff to warm up in.
And Prince George's County is expanding its indoor testing options. Within a month, the county anticipates having three indoor public testing sites available, up from one previously. The county is finalizing a contract with a facility in Laurel while also moving testing indoors at Cheverly Health Center, according to a county spokesperson.
Two outdoor testing sites remain in the county — at Dyer Regional Health Center in Clinton and county headquarters in Largo — which both have tents and heaters.
However, it is likely that they will close for the winter at some point depending on cold, snow, and their popularity (or lack thereof).
This winterizing and transition indoors has gone on while public sites have seen a dramatic increase in people seeking tests. A number of jurisdictions noted that demand roughly doubled in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. They anticipate that demand staying high through December, and into the new year as holiday travel and gatherings tick up.
Geldart says despite long lines and increased wait times, the District was prepared for the influx. If lines at testing sites get cut off, he says it's not because they've run out of sample kits, but because they are trying to preserve the turnaround time for results at three to five days (currently, it's about 4 days).
"If you have to wait seven days to get your results, that's a long time," says Geldart. "We were very cautious [with the lines] ... so, that our lab partners can continue to handle [demand] without seeing a major change in the turnaround times for test results."
If longer turnaround times on results and waiting in lines in frigid temperatures are a concern for residents, he encourages them to find another method of getting tested this winter.
"We are here... to ensure that there's testing capacity for everybody that wants to get tested or needs to get tested," says Geldart. "So, my recommendation for folks is if they really don't want to wait in line, to wait out in the cold, to make an appointment with their doctor or their health care professional."