In the beginning, free COVID-19 testing at the Pepsi Center was a snap — and a justified point of pride for Denver officials responding to the novel coronavirus. But in just over a week, as positive cases and hospitalization numbers rise around the country, including in Colorado, the process has become a marathon in which demand is outstripping supply.
The Pepsi Center testing site closed shortly after noon yesterday, July 7, after long lines had made the arena's parking lot and at least one lane of Auraria Parkway look more like a still life than an action painting. I know that from personal experience, since my wife and I had arrived at around 11:30 a.m.
The two of us wanted to get tested in order to spend time with family members over two consecutive weekends at our cabin on the Grand Mesa. The idea was that we'd all submit to Pepsi Center swabbing at the start of last week and again this week, then isolate over the next couple of days — and if test results came back negative, we'd head to the cabin the following Friday, knowing that we could hang out together safely.
For this plan to work, we needed to receive our diagnosis before our departure dates — and that seemed doable, since other family members had gotten previous test results back in two or three days.
When I stopped by the Pepsi Center a week ago Sunday, the morning of June 28, I was able to drive straight up to the testing tent. Since I'd pre-registered the day before, as instructed, the process was incredibly quick; I was in and out in less than five minutes.
Problem was, the results weren't ready in two days (or three days, or four days) amid big changes at the testing site. The city had initially announced that it was ending weekend testing and cutting back on hours because of difficulties in obtaining enough test kits, and while the schedule was restored after Governor Jared Polis came up with 10,000 more kits, testing companies themselves were falling behind because of the surge of cases around the country. Fortunately, when the results finally came in six days after the test, they were negative.
The Pepsi Center site was closed on July 5 and July 6 because of the Fourth of July holiday and city furloughs, and when we got there on July 7, the contrast with June 28 was stark. Traffic was so thick that our first attempt to turn into the lot blocked the intersection when cars in front of us couldn't move; we had to back up and wait for another signal. And that was only the beginning of our delays.
Over the first twenty minutes of our wait, we traveled around 200 yards, and our use of the air conditioner to counteract the blazing hot temperatures soon caused the heat gauge in my 1999 Honda Accord to rocket toward the red. We had to turn off the AC, crank down the windows and turn the heater on full blast to prevent the engine from melting down entirely.
After nearly an hour, we'd managed to round a couple of corners and could actually see the testing tent — and since we occupied the inside lane, we were hopeful that we'd start making some real progress. But no: An unknown complication caused one car to remain in the tent for approximately ten minutes, leaving those of us in the rear to sit and swelter.
To amuse herself while we lingered, my wife began tracking the time it took for each car to move through the tent — and the efficiency of the staff was impressive, particularly under these trying circumstances. Most cars exited in three minutes or less, with the record a minute and a half.
Our total once we finally got to the tent was two and a half minutes — not bad, given that there were two of us who needed testing. This time, though, we were told not to expect results for between five and eight days, basically double the two-to-four-day pledge circa late June.
As we headed toward the exit at 1 p.m., ninety minutes after our arrival, we saw that the line behind us was much, much shorter than it had been. We assumed that meant we'd simply chosen the wrong time to show up — and only later did we learn we'd gotten in under the wire, just before city officials decided the situation was completely out of control.
Starting today, the Pepsi Center will be limited to 2,000 tests per day, and no one will be surprised if that total is lowered over the next week or so. Because testing for COVID-19 at the arena has also become a test of patience.
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