The testing trailer at County Public Health's Camino del Remedio campus is one of several free locations that test for COVID, though it can take a few days to get in. | Credit: Jackeline Ruiz/S.B. County Public Health Department

When children of school age show signs of illness like a runny nose, headache, fever, or even diarrhea, ​a parent must now do more than call the school to report their absence. Instead, they must begin searching for a doctor or lab available to test their child in case they’ve caught COVID. It’s not always an easy quest.

Since the start of school, Sansum nearly doubled its number of COVID tests for children in the first weeks of September compared to all of last June, said Randi Rossi, who manages the Pediatric Branch. At Cottage Health’s Urgent Care clinics, testing of young patients more than doubled from July 17 to September 16. At Pacific Diagnostic Labs, a subsidiary of Cottage, among those ages 0-17, testing tripled ​— ​from 791 to 2,730 — with a positive result about 5 percent of the time.

Testing trailer at Public Health’s Camino del Remedio campus | Credit: Jackeline Ruiz/S.B. County Public Health Department

Cottage releases appointment times online at 8 p.m. for the next day, which fill quickly in the morning. A search for COVID testing labs online can turn up other locations, urgent cares, and pharmacies that offer same-day testing. Costs range from $90-$275 depending on the test, but insurance can sometimes bring that down to zero or a copay. A full lab test can take up to 48 hours to give a result, and rapid tests can return results the same day, if not the same hour. But there’s a catch.

Sansum’s Kim Hurley explained that a child who’s been exposed is very different from one with active symptoms. Plus, “COVID is such a gray area; so much is unknown,” she said. The virus incubates for five to seven days, but sometimes for three to five days; a high viral load delivers the most reliable test result; but a delay is sometimes inevitable. 

Weirdly, Hurley said she’s seen kids test negative who are clearly ill. “For some reason, their body just doesn’t register to the test,” she said. They are known as zebras, “because they’re not part of the usual pack.” So a doctor’s assessment can be vital.

Most of the independent labs who responded to a reporter’s call had dealt mainly with people who needed a test to board an airplane or attend a performance, which kept them crazy busy, one said. They hadn’t seen an uptick in young patients, no doubt because the school districts are advising parents to go through their doctor in assessing their child’s health and COVID status.

Public Health’s advice was part of this year’s Santa Barbara Unified school packet. Among many other things, it explained the recommended length of quarantine for those with vaccination or no vaccination and gave the Centers for Disease Control’s advice for a second test to confirm a negative test. The schools also conduct surveillance testing with free but limited supplies from the state; the medical facilities indicated no shortages, but labs reported an inability to obtain kits from some test manufacturers.

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The Big Kahuna for testing is County Public Health, which conducts free tests at the Goleta Valley Community Center, one of the busiest in the state, and at its testing trailer on Camino del Remedio. A new mini-bus at Direct Relief in Goleta rolls up on September 27. It can take two to three days to get an appointment, and the gold-standard test they offer ​— ​which grows coronavirus DNA ​— ​can take up to two days for a result.

Hurley noted that people who were vaccinated definitely didn’t get as sick, didn’t feel bad as long, and didn’t end up in the hospital. “This is a terrible virus,” she said. “It’s hard to say 100 percent of the time who will test positive, who will test negative. That’s why, I think, too, that we’re struggling to control it.”

4-1-1 | Visit the Vaccination Bus

Santa Barbara senior and junior highs will host a vaccination bus for children ages 12 and over, and for their family members, free of charge, no appointment needed. Parents or guardians are encouraged to come with their child.

» Dos Pueblos High School: Wed., Sept. 22, 4-7 p.m.
» La Cumbre Junior High: Mon., Sept. 27, 4-7 p.m.
» Dos Pueblos High School: Tue., Sept. 28, 6:30-10 a.m.
» Goleta Valley Junior High School: Mon., Oct. 4, 4-7 p.m.
» Santa Barbara Junior High School: Tues., Oct. 5, 4-7 p.m.
» Santa Barbara High School: Mon., Oct. 11, 6:30-10 a.m.

Out at UCSB

On the graduate student front, UC Santa Barbara erected a large electronic sign on campus this weekend to point everyone moving into campus housing toward a testing facility. Each of them underwent a test, and some will be asked to return for a second test in a week. This testing is being done to identify anyone who is positive so they can be isolated before they transmit the virus to others on campus, said campus spokesperson Andrea Estrada.

Though the campus has been testing for the past year, given the quantity at hand, UCSB is using not only the lab on campus but also a lab down at UCLA and a Goleta-based laboratory. Local results take about a day to come back, while the UCLA shipment can take up to 48 hours, Estrada said.

So far, the undergraduate positive-test rate has been 0.15 percent, said Estrada, and no supply issues have cropped up, despite the anticipated 10,000-11,000 tests that are still ongoing.

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