People are waiting as long as 4 hours at Wisconsin coronavirus testing sites as cases rise

A photo of the testing site in Madison, taken by Pernille Rip on Monday. She waited in line for nearly 4 hours before her and her son were tested.

As the number of Coronavirus cases rise in Wisconsin, some residents are facing long waits at free testing sites, with some waiting nearly four hours. 

Posts across social media have shown people waiting in lines for up to nearly four hours before being able to get a nasal swab test at the free testing sites run by the Wisconsin National Guard. 

Pernille Ripp of Madison ended up waiting four hours in her car when she took her 7-year-old son to get tested on Monday. 

Her son had a slight fever and a cough, she said, symptoms that normally would point to a cold. But not wanting to take any chances, she called her doctor and asked to get an appointment. The wait was three days, Ripp said, so she decided to take her son to the drive-up testing site at the Alliant Energy Center. They got to the testing center a little before 9 a.m. Due to the heat, she decided to stay in the car and wait in the drive-up line, instead of wait in the walk-up line. 

“He’s not feeling well, it’s 87 degrees, we better just stay in the car. But it was a sea of cars,” she said. “And as we’re sitting there, the sign goes up to 90 minutes, then 150 minutes, then it went to 3 and a half hours.” 

She said that there was little opportunity to turn around in her minivan with how close the line was, so she stuck it out. But as she watched the cars in front of her, she noticed how haphazard the traffic management was, and that the 15 lines fed into only five testing booths. 

“I noticed a whole slew of cars that got let in front of us,” she said. “There didn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to where you were put.” 

Finally, after three and a half hours, Ripp made it to the front of the line. It only took about 15 minutes to fill out paperwork for both her and her son to get tested, then about 5 minutes for the swab to be done. In total, she and her son spent four hours in the parking lot of the Alliant Energy Center. 

While Ripp wasn’t happy with the long wait, she knows it isn’t the fault of those doing the testing. But it’s still frustrating. 

“I don’t want to discourage others from getting tested,” she said. “I just wish there were more opportunities for testing.” 

Right now, testing in Dane County is being done by the National Guard at only the Alliant Energy Center, which runs Monday through Saturday, according to a July 6 release. So far, that testing site has taken over 45,700 tests since May 11. 

In Milwaukee, two testing sites run by the Guard are available, one at the United Migrant Opportunity Services building at 2701 S. Chase Ave., and another at Custer Stadium at 4300 W. Fairmount Ave. So far, nearly 30,000 tests have been collected at UMOS since May 11, and 6,000 have been done at Custer Stadium since June 1.

A video posted to Facebook Monday by Nicholas Ystad showed a line of cars outside the UMOS site that appeared to go for a mile. 

“This is insane,” said someone in the background of the video. “Looks like we’re in a pandemic folks.” 

At the location Tuesday afternoon, people said they were waiting 30 minutes to an hour in their cars.

Matt Collins was expecting a long wait after hearing the line extended onto Chase Avenue the day before. And without air conditioning in his car, he arrived with the windows down, prepared for the stifling heat.

“I brought water and ice packs and stuff,” Collins said. “It’s going pretty smoothly actually.”

Lisa Caminiti drove her friend Rajan Kher to the UMOS site, on Milwaukee’s south side, from Sturtevant. Kher works for Foxconn, where all employees are mandated to get tested after long weekends, she said.

The two weren’t sure if it would be faster at the National Guard site or by making an appointment near Sturtevant, so they chose to take the afternoon and make the drive to Milwaukee.

They were close to the front of the line after an hour waiting, and Kher said she wished there were more than six testing booths so the process would be faster — she was missing time at work, she said.

Sgt. Shawn Sprixet, a Guard spokesman at the site, said it takes about five minutes to interview the person and conduct the test. There are about 50 Guard members working at any time on tasks from directing traffic to swabbing.

He also said the site’s one walk-up lane was popular early on with neighborhood residents, but it’s been less busy in recent days.

New technology could cut down on waits

Capt. Joseph Trovato with the Wisconsin National Guard said that it’s hard to speculate about the rising number of people wanting to get tested, but it could be due to the fact that the free testing sites were shut down over the Fourth of July. 

The UMOS site tested 831 people on Monday, Sprixet said. It’s one of the busier days they’ve seen. He also attributed the boost to the desire to get tested after attending social gatherings over the holiday weekend.

The sites that the Guard is running throughout the state are budgeted to go through about 500 tests a day, but Trovato said that even when sites run up to 3,000 tests in one day, as has happened in Madison, everyone who needs one can still get a test. The issue causing wait times is just the limited number of staff there to do all the testing, and the fact that cars have to be funneled into lines at the testing sites. 

“We try to open lanes when we see demand,” he said. 

Trovato said the Guard has also been experimenting with new technology that may help to cut down long wait times, but said that he couldn’t release more information yet. For the time being, Guard members in full protective gear are conducting each test by hand, using a nasal swab. 

Meanwhile, public health officials are telling residents to prepare for the long waits. 

Public Health Madison & Dane County acknowledged the long waits in a Tuesday morning Facebook post, saying that 2,000 people were tested on Monday, resulting in waits of up to 4 hours. 

The organization encouraged people to arrive with a full tank of gas, not to bring any pets, and bring food and water. 

In part, the spike in testing was attributed to people worrying that they were exposed to the virus over the holiday weekend, according to a Monday afternoon Facebook post.

Public Health Madison encouraged people to only seek tests if they were feeling safe, while reminding readers that the incubation term of the virus is 2 to 14 days, so exposure over the weekend may not have shown up. 

Sarah Mattes, the communications supervisor for Public Health Madison said people did experience wait times up to four hours on Monday, but by Tuesday wait times were dropped to about two hours. She also recommended that people look to other smaller testing sites, such as the one at the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, at the Allied Family Center. 

Though those looking for tests may be experiencing a wait time, Trovato still wants Wisconsin residents to remember that there are plenty to go around. He also advises those who need a test to avoid peak hours — before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. — for a better chance at finding a shorter line. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@gannett.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.