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As COVID cases surge, Baltimore residents scramble tor tests

The line to the testing site at Village Baptist Church, stretching down and around the block. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR
The line to the testing site at Village Baptist Church, stretching down and around the block. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

Baltimore City residents rushed to get tested for COVID-19 this week, visiting multiple sites and waiting for hours.

Betty Carr, who lives right across South Hilton Street from the Village Baptist Church site, was making her third attempt this week at getting a test. By the time she was halfway through the line, which stretched all the way around the block, she’d waited for about an hour.

Carr came to the site hoping for an at-home test kit, but the site, run by the Baltimore City Health Department, ran out, so she got swabbed.

In a way, she said, it’s reassuring that the lines are so long. It means people are taking the virus seriously.

“This thing is no joke. I don't know why people think it is. But it's not. I've seen people die from this. And it's terrible. It's really terrible,” Carr said.

Just last winter, Carr said she thought the pandemic might be a hoax. Now Carr is vaccinated, and she said there’s no doubt this is real.

“I went to a funeral yesterday. Every time you turn around, somebody's dying,” she said. “A lot of times it's COVID more so than anything else.”

Carr usually meets family at her daughter’s house for Christmas dinner, but not this year. Her granddaughter recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“I'll stay right in the house with my dog and my cat. We fine,” she said, chuckling.

Ahead of Carr in the line was Marcus Cheatham, a Mount Vernon Resident who makes clothes for Under Armour.

Cheatham said he lost track of time, but that he probably waited for an hour and half. Earlier Tuesday morning he tried to get an at-home test at one of the Enoch Pratt Libraries, where they were handing out free at-home test kits. Cheatham said the location he went to ran out of tests in about five minutes.

Cheatham, who’s vaccinated, hasn’t decided whether to cancel his Christmas plans yet. He’s hoping to meet family at a relative’s house in Pennsylvania, but he was exposed to someone with COVID.

And he’s concerned that a negative test result from today doesn’t mean he’s in the clear.

“You could test negative beginning of the day and then test positive,” Cheatham said. “It’s just…kind of insane. But as long as people are staying safe – I mean obviously, a lot of people aren't.”

Joshua Harris, the vice president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, was also waiting in line at the church Tuesday. Harris said he usually has a huge Christmas gathering of 20 to 40 people. That’s not happening this year, but his mother wants to visit, and he wants to make sure he’s COVID free.

When Harris was in the back half of the line, he’d been waiting for half an hour. Harris said one of his friends waited here for about two and a half hours.

“I'm hoping that they see the necessity to open up more testing sites,” he said. “I know that vaccines are a priority, but mass testing should still be a priority for sure, especially with all the breakthrough cases.”

The State Center, one of the state’s mass sites, was swamped Monday, with some people waiting for hours, only to leave untested.

On Wednesday, the lines were a lot shorter. Workers told WYPR that the lines had been so long that they decided to make the site appointment-only that morning, with limited walk-ins. They also handed out at-home rapid test kits.

After making an appointment, Elizabeth Uribe went to the State Center with her two kids to get swabbed.

“It was pretty fast. Not so bad at all.“ Uribe said. “I was able to just come and go inside.”

Uribe wants to have a small gathering with family, but said she got sick after Thanksgiving.

“If it comes back positive, I don't want to be with people and get them sick,” she said.

Carl Dankosky, a chef, was swabbed and out the door within about 20 minutes. Earlier this week he was at three different Walgreens locations to get a test.

Coming to a mass testing site like this one, he said, was a last resort.

“That family right there, that family was right next to me and their kids didn't have masks on,” he said, gesturing toward a family that was out of earshot. “That's the type of stuff that just makes me cringe.”

Dankosky said that wasn’t the only family with unmasked kids inside.

“I totally get it. Where are you going to put your kid? And also, how are you going to convince them to wear a mask for x amount of hours?” he asked.

He said he trusts that the workers are doing things to mitigate the spread, but being there still made him uncomfortable.

And for Dankosky, what next year holds seems very uncertain. Just five months ago he was in Arizona. His girlfriend was unemployed for a year, then found work here. Morale, he said, was low.

“At 41 I didn't think I was going to be so paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “And I feel like the past two years have really prolonged that.”

Baltimore residents can visit the Erdman Shopping Center Thursday for swabs and at-home test kits.

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.