As COVID-19 testing numbers rise, Embry Health hopes to expand services

The waiting line for Embry Health’s COVID-19 testing at Mesa Community College is a labyrinth of orange traffic cones guiding cars to a designated point where a health care worker takes down drivers and passengers’ personal information.

A nose is swabbed. The car leaves. The process is repeated.

It’s in such parking lots across Arizona that Embry Health’s testing numbers have jumped 1,000% from July 1 to Aug. 18.

On Friday Arizona passed more than 1 million cases of COVID-19, and the state’s Arizona’s COVID-19 testing numbers are in the top half of the country. The Kaiser Family Foundation ranks the state 14th in total number of tests with results and in daily tests per million people. The positivity rate was 8.1%, the survey said.

Embry Health started offering COVID tests in March 2020 after CEO Raymond Embry rerouted resources from Embry Women’s Clinic in Mesa.

According to Embry Health, school reopenings are the biggest change in this year’s uptick in testing compared with last year. The increases aren’t isolated to one area but spread across Embry’s more than 50 locations.

“You see students, you see young ones, you see 5-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 13-year-olds and why? It’s because they’re at school,” said Miguel Pedraza, Embry Health’s manager of logistics.

Pedraza noted the increased numbers also are a result of testing children of all ages.

“We’ve seen that, for example, at one school, they had one student who tested positive and the whole classroom of 35 students had to come and get tested,” Pedraza said.

For Jessica Rigler, assistant director at the Arizona Department of Health Services, the bump in testing numbers is an encouraging sign because getting tested is more normalized than in the early days of COVID-19, which was first detected in Arizona in late January 2020.

“To me, that signals that people either are concerned that they’ve been exposed or they’re experiencing symptoms, and they’re taking that step to get tested,” Rigler said.

She added that a positive result allows people to take action by isolating at home and notifying others they may have exposed.

The testing site at Mesa Community College is Embry Health’s largest in Arizona.

“Our goal is to get it up to about six lanes,” Raymond Embry said. “Right now, we have a total of two lanes operating. But it looks like patients are probably waiting between 30 and 45 minutes right now.”

The wait times at smaller Embry testing sites, however, have been longer, in some cases multiple hours. Despite this, Embry encouraged Arizonans to take the time.

“We believe in most cases that having a wait is, in fact, worth it,” Embry said. “Because at least somebody who desperately needs to get tested will be able to get tested, even if they have to wait.”

To address extended wait times, Embry Health launched an initiative this month to hire 800 workers to spread across all of its testing locations. At least 200 have been brought in through the program.

Embry added that the company also is trying to reach underserved areas through mobile testing and pop-up events.

“Right now, we have 15 separate RVs and vans that we’re working to deploy in the community,” Embry said. “And we expect to have them out there on city streets and at schools by early next week.”

Arizona’s Department of Health Services says COVID-19 test results typically come back in two days. Individual groups like Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute average a 37-hour turnaround, while Embry Health’s can be up to 48 hours.

To find COVID-19 testing centers near you, visit azdhs.gov/testing.

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