Denver’s free coronavirus testing site at the Pepsi Center will stay open — for now

The city has been footing a majority of the site’s bill, though i’ts requested federal reimbursement.

A new mass testing facility for COVID-19 at the Pepsi Center. May 21, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A new mass testing facility for COVID-19 at the Pepsi Center. May 21, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Two weeks ago, Mayor Michael Hancock said the city’s free coronavirus testing site, which offers up to 2,000 tests a day, would be paid for through July. But it wasn’t immediately clear how it would stay open beyond this month.

Denver Department of Safety Spokesperson Kelli Christensen said over email the city has partnered with the state to figure out “the future of the Pepsi Center site,” with details still being worked out. The site will remain open in the meantime.

Christensen said the city has been paying for the site and the money it’s spent would be reimbursed by FEMA. She said it’s the largest coronavirus testing site in the state.

She warned the city can’t keep paying for the site by itself. The site has cost $11.7 million to operate as of last Friday, according to figures from the city’s finance department.

“It’s going to be difficult for the city to keep doing that but we want to act in the best interest of the community,” Christensen said. In an email, city finance department spokesperson Julie Smith said the city has been covering the cost through its COVID Special Revenue Fund. Smith said the city submitted a reimbursement on July 24 for costs starting in May through July 17 and for estimated costs through July 31.

Micki Trust, a spokesperson with the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said in a statement to Denverite the state is working with the city to keep the site open. Trust said the site will continue to stay open seven days a week.

The free testing is available to anyone in the metro area. Data from Denver Public Health shows COVID-19 cases rose between mid-June to mid-July, prompting Denver to pause some of its reopening efforts.

“Now is not the time to reduce our testing capacity,” Trust said. “The Pepsi Center testing site has been highly successful in providing free COVID-19 tests to the community since (May 22) 2020. The site will continue to operate uninterrupted for the foreseeable future.”

Christensen said 75 percent of the site’s operating costs are paid for by FEMA reimbursement and 25 percent by CARE Act money. The city got $126.8 million in CARE Act money for COVID-related needs, like housing, PPE, small-business support, safety, food assistance and community testing. Smith said the city has until Dec. 31 to use the CARE Act money.

“FEMA funds also exist for use as long as the President’s emergency declaration is in effect,” Smith said in an email. “FEMA dollars are appropriated based on our requests for reimbursement.”

Gov. Jared Polis mentioned Denver’s testing site when discussing testing availability during a press briefing this week. He said turnaround times for test results was an issue and pledged to “work with” the city. He also didn’t provide details about what that would look like.

“They operate well,” Polis said. “We want to continue that. And we work with them on a plan to do that. But also to get that eight, nine days down to two or three days, and then have similar opportunities for quick, easy, free testing, no questions asked in other parts of the Denver metro area and Colorado.”

Christensen said turnaround time has improved in the last two weeks, with the average results available in about four days, though she added some people may still be waiting longer. That’s down from the 12-day peak some people were reporting waiting for results.

The site has completed 67,430 tests as of Wednesday afternoon. Christensen said the current positivity rate at the site is 3.7 percent, which is lower than the statewide 7.8 percent rate listed by John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

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