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People scramble to get tested for COVID but appointments are hard to get

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Across the U.S., the spread of omicron has people scrambling to get tested for COVID, but the lines are long, appointments at testing sites get scooped up fast and rapid antigen tests are hard to find. Raquel Maria Dillon with member station KQED visited a clinic in the working-class city of Richmond in Northern California.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON, BYLINE: Alejandra Felix had a cough and a sore throat, so she did the responsible thing and called in sick.

ALEJANDRA FELIX: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: Felix cleans houses for a living and works for herself. Before she goes back to work, she wants to be sure it's just a flu. The COVID testing site here at LifeLong Medical Center was fully booked. She called and called...

FELIX: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: ...But couldn't get an appointment. For Felix, a week with no work means losing up to $800 in income.

FELIX: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: Money she needs to pay the bills. But this clinic isn't taking walk-ups anymore.

FELIX: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: Felix left feeling desperate. Since the holidays, the demand for testing here has ballooned. For the small staff, it's exhausting.

GRISELDA RAMIREZ-ESCAMILLA: We get tired, and we just got to step aside, take a breath. There are times where we cry a little, and then we come back.

DILLON: Griselda Ramirez-Escamilla, who runs the urgent care center here, says this surge is taking an emotional toll.

RAMIREZ-ESCAMILLA: You know, it's hard. And we show up every morning. We have times where we do break down, but it's just the nature of it. We have to lift our spirits and keep moving.

DILLON: LifeLong Medical serves a specific community - Medicaid patients and essential workers who risk COVID exposure at their jobs. The pandemic is hitting these low-income communities again, this time with omicron. LifeLong runs three testing sites in the Bay Area. Its clinics are getting about a thousand COVID calls each day. This site can only test 60 people daily and can't scale up.

JOCELYN FREEMAN GARRICK: It's not always about quantity. But if we're reaching those who have no other way to access testing resources, then we are achieving our goal.

DILLON: Dr. Jocelyn Freeman Garrick is with Alameda County's public health department. With demand up 400% at county testing locations, she says these smaller sites do what larger ones can't - serve these vulnerable neighborhoods.

FREEMAN GARRICK: We found at those smaller sites that the percent positivity rate was much higher than the general population. So the numbers may be small, but that's a pivotal role.

GABY PEREZ: So go ahead and pull your mask down. And open your mouth and stick your tongue out.

DILLON: That's 24-year-old Gaby Perez. It's her job to swab noses and throats for the COVID tests here. She says many immigrant families in this majority-Latino city live in multigenerational households with grandparents or children who are too young to be vaccinated.

PEREZ: Once somebody tests positive, it's like there's no way of getting away from it unless you go to another home. You got to use the same bathroom, same bedroom, same kitchen. There's not really a way around it.

DILLON: She speaks from experience.

PEREZ: I do live with my parents, and I have been hit by COVID. I thank God that I did survive it. My dad was really sick.

DILLON: That was last summer, and he's OK now. But the experience inspired her to switch careers from child care to medical assistant as a step toward becoming a nurse to further serve her community.

For NPR News, I'm Raquel Maria Dillon in Richmond, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Raquel Maria Dillon