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Enoch Pratt Library’s free tests run out within half hour, as holidays approach

Julia Flaccavento holds the two at-home COVID-19 testing kits she received from the Waverly Library.
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Julia Flaccavento holds the two at-home COVID-19 testing kits she received from the Waverly Library.

Baltimore’s health department gave the Enoch Pratt Library system 4,800 free, at-home COVID-19 test kits to distribute on Tuesday. The system’s 22 branches gave away nearly the entire supply within half an hour of opening.

Joseph Mulhollen arrived at the Waverly branch a few minutes after it opened at 10 a.m. only to be greeted with signs saying the 200 or so kits had already been given away.

“This whole thing seems really convoluted and confusing, not just to me, but to a lot of people,” he said.

The holidays coinciding with the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant have put Mulhollen and many others on high alert. Maryland’s testing positivity rate is 11.6%, nearly triple the rate from four weeks ago. Testing appointments are hard to come by; lines for local walk-in clinics are hours long.

Mulhollen is planning to travel to Buffalo, NY for the holidays. He’s fully vaccinated and got a booster shot; he knows that his chances of getting seriously ill from COVID are small.

“But I do have immunocompromised people in my family, so I just wanted to make sure that I was safeguarding myself and them as much as I possibly could,” he said.

He said that last holiday season, things were different. Then, he’d walked up to the convention center, waited in a 20 minute line and got his test results the next day.

“I'm also concerned that there are people who aren't going to get tested because of how frustrating it is to get tested,” he said. “And they're going to think that they just have a cold and they'll get over it, not realizing it was COVID and they could have possibly spread it to 10, 20, 100 people.”

His plan B is to buy a test at Walgreens. “But last I checked, those are pretty scarce too,” he said.

The health department tweeted that city employees are working to get even more kits to the library system “and other distribution centers, because we know people need them.”

Julia Flaccavento of Mayfield had more luck. She lined up outside the Waverly Library at about 9:20, forty minutes before it opened. She estimates she was around the thirtieth person in line.

“By the time they actually opened the doors, which was right at 10 o'clock, the line was wrapped around the building almost three full times,” she said.

Flaccavento was able to take the maximum of two at-home testing kits. She and her husband plan on taking them before seeing both sets of their parents over the holidays, in hopes of warding off the omicron variant.

“Things have just spiked so quickly and so intensely,” she said. “It's just so contagious that it feels like you need to get tested before any gathering.”

Pete Morril of Remington isn’t traveling for the holidays. He rode his bike to the Waverly Library in hopes of getting at-home tests for his two young children.

“Every time the kids come home with a cough from school, they want to have a test before they get sent back to class. And kids are always sick,” he said.

He arrived at Waverly at 10:30 a.m., striking out for the second time in one morning. He’d arrived at the Central Branch in Mount Vernon five minutes before it opened, and the line was all the way around the building.

Morril is hopeful he’ll get take-home tests somehow — he says they’re far easier than taking his kids to walk-in clinics.

“Taking time off work to go wait at the state center, because their hours are kind of limited, is not always an option,” he said.

At the very least, Morril’s two-year-old son Abe is unfazed by the actual testing process. Morril said he even looks forward to getting vaccines.

“Remember when we had to tickle your nose for science?” Morril asked him. “Did it hurt?”

“No,” he replied stoically.

Flaccavento, who managed to get at-home tests from the Waverly Library, said she’s trying to be as cautious around COVID as she can, without giving into panic: unlike the early days of the pandemic, we know how to stop the spread.

“It's a public health crisis and we're all living through it and regular testing is the answer,” she said. “So we should all have access to testing as often and as easily as we all need it.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.