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Home / Science / Health /  Covid-19 tests get harder to find as omicron variant spreads

Waiting times for Covid-19 tests are growing in parts of the U.S. as concerns over the Omicron variant, new infections and the coming holidays drive up demand.

Websites for CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. showed some parts of the country with no available testing appointments until later next week or more than a week out. CVS said people might need to wait a couple of days to get a test appointment in places where demand is high. A Walgreens spokeswoman said availability varies by region.

Health officials and infectious-disease experts expect demand for tests to rise further in the weeks ahead as holiday gatherings collide with concerns over the Omicron variant, rising Covid-19 cases and the spread of other respiratory diseases.

Many laboratories are still processing tests within a day or two and have the capacity to meet the heightened demand, said lab operators and pharmacies. But worker shortages at pharmacies have meant that securing testing appointments could take days or longer in places where Covid-19 cases are surging, and fast-acting at-home tests are out of stock in some cases at stores and online.

“The U.S. is not ready testing-wise because of essentially a perfect storm," said Samuel Scarpino, managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation. He said a quick turnaround time is critical to curbing the spread because many people likely won’t isolate while they wait for results, particularly if they don’t have symptoms.

“I would say that two days is a day too long," Dr. Scarpino said.

Capacity to manufacture and process Covid-19 tests in the U.S. has increased significantly during the pandemic. New options including over-the-counter rapid tests have relieved some pressure on laboratories. The Biden administration in October committed an additional $1 billion to expand the supply of rapid, at-home tests and has aimed to quadruple the supply of the fast-acting tests from the summer.

Yet rising demand is putting a strain on the testing infrastructure again, in part because many mass-testing sites that collected large numbers of patient samples have closed over the past year.

Crystal Hudson, who was recently elected to represent New York City’s 35th district, said she had to wait a day and travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a testing appointment after being exposed to a colleague with Covid-19.

The site had run out of rapid tests, so she said she got swabbed for a PCR test and went looking for another rapid test. Ms. Hudson left a second site the next morning after finding dozens of people ahead of her in line. Her PCR test came back negative Friday morning.

“I’m just trying to take all the necessary precautions, and it’s been incredibly difficult to do that," said Ms. Hudson, who said she has received a Covid-19 booster. “We’ve had almost two years to learn from the pandemic, and it feels like we haven’t learned a thing."

Officials in New York City, where lines stretched down the street at some locations last week, said on Thursday that they would add testing locations, expand hours at current sites and distribute 500,000 rapid tests, including to people waiting in line at testing sites.

Nationwide, the Biden administration is largely relying on pharmacy chains to vaccinate and test people. The chains are short-staffed and facing heightened demand, which has limited availability of appointments for both tests and vaccines.

The American Pharmacists Association said people are facing unacceptable wait times for tests and vaccines partly because of worker shortages.

“We can’t just look at when the sample hits the lab. We have to look at the whole process," said Mara Aspinall, co-founder of the Biomedical Diagnostics program at Arizona State University and board member of rapid test-maker OraSure Technologies Inc.

In Providence, R.I., 10 of 15 area Walgreens stores were listed on Saturday as having available appointments online. The earliest was for Thursday. In Madison, Wis., on Saturday, the city’s 11 Walgreens stores listed Wednesday as the earliest available day for testing appointments. One store had Wednesday slots; the remaining 10 locations had no openings before Friday.

In Bridgeport, Conn., the CVS website on Saturday showed no available testing appointments at locations within 15 miles through Sunday. In White Plains, N.Y., the next available appointment within 15 miles of the city was for Dec. 27.

A White House spokesman said the administration has taken several steps to improve availability of Covid-19 tests, and is working with governors and state and local health officials to add even more capacity in places where Omicron is driving increases in demand. The Biden administration plans to release guidelines by Jan. 15 that would allow people with private health insurance to apply for reimbursement for over-the-counter tests.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to improve access to testing, especially in places where there aren’t enough pharmacies to meet demand, an agency spokesman said. One new model allows people to request testing kits online—which can be either picked up at a drugstore or sent to homes within two days—and conduct a self swab at home. They then use a prepaid shipping bag to return the sample to a lab or can drop it off at a retail store or pharmacy.

Some states are distributing at-home tests free of charge. Colorado residents can order tests from the state health department, and the tests are available at libraries in Ohio. Massachusetts plans to deliver 2.1 million over-the-counter rapid tests to communities with the highest percentage of families below the poverty line.

Fast-acting antigen or PCR-like tests are also available for purchase at many retailers and online. But some brands are out of stock or available for delivery in a few days. Prices for Covid-19 tests on Amazon.com Inc.’s website on Friday ranged from $17.98 for a pair to $900 for a 10-pack. Several cheaper options were listed as unavailable until after Christmas.

“If we have to save them for a special occasion, we’re not using enough of them," said Zoë McLaren, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

 

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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