As Americans prepare to travel for holiday gatherings, the celebrations seem increasingly likely to overlap with the surge in Covid-19 cases and the rapid spread of the omicron variant. These threats, in turn, are creating an outcry for PCR tests, rapid tests and home kits.
“To further reassure you, because we have more disease in this country right now, take a test and make sure you are negative before mixing and gathering in different households”, Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday during a White House briefing.
The problem? Covid-19 tests are increasingly difficult to obtain. Some public health officials predict further strain on testing resources, while sites in cities like New York and Miami are already seeing long lines.
“The reality is that testing resources are not endless in this country,” said Dr. Meena Brewster, health officer in St. Mary’s County, Md., South of Washington. “Depending on how omicron goes, we could very well have long delays in test turnaround times and very limited access to tests, like where we were at the start of the pandemic.”
Brewster said his county libraries in Maryland that offer free home tests can’t keep up.
“We’re pretty much running out of those tests very quickly,” she said.
In New York City, long lines stretched outside testing sites this week, and the daily average of new Covid cases reached 3,700 on Thursday – a figure not seen since early April. CityMD, an emergency care provider with clinics across town, said its test volume has grown by more than 25% in the past two weeks and lab results are taking up to three to five days to return.
In Indiana, some local health agencies warned this month that they have limited rapid tests or no longer offer them. The Clark County, Indiana, Health Department, which borders Louisville, Ky., Ran out of tests for a few days, then was able to secure a small shipment.
“Our cases tend to go up, so our demand for testing is high,” county health official Dr Eric Yazel said. “I’m not comfortable saying our supply is going to last us long. “
In Hartford, Connecticut, some residents searched for home tests at pharmacies like CVS, only to find them out of stock from brands like BinaxNOW and QuickVue At-Home.
In Florida, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava held a press conference Thursday at a drive-through test site, showing cars lined up. She suggested residents consider moving the celebrations outside, but did not urge people to cut back on their holiday festivities.
“Despite our best efforts, the pandemic is not over,” she said.
Ron Gonçalves, chief executive of Nomi Health in Florida, which oversees the county’s vaccination and testing sites, said there had been an increase in demand for testing in recent days, forcing his company to add Staff.
“What was normally a 15 minute wait here has increased to an hour in some cases,” he told reporters.
Jason Feldman, CEO of Vault Health, which sells in-home tests, said sales have started to increase as Thanksgiving approaches. He warned consumers could find store shelves empty by Christmas.
“The demand for testing has never been greater,” he told NBC affiliate KING 5 in Seattle this week.
As wintry weather pushes people indoors, Brewster said, she anticipates a “triple peak” of factors that will lead to more testing: outbreaks caused by the delta variant, increased cases of omicron and flu symptoms. which can be confused with the coronavirus.
Health officials continue to recommend testing for anyone with symptoms of Covid, regardless of vaccination status, as well as for those who come in contact with someone who tests positive for Covid. Many people also rely on testing as a precaution before large gatherings.
Rapid tests in particular are a key tool, said Elizabeth Stuart, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Although PCR tests, which are processed in the laboratory, are more reliable, it can take more than two days to get results.
“We’re seeing slight cases of breakthrough, and people before they congregate inside should take a quick test,” Stuart said. “But knowing that you weren’t infected three days ago isn’t the information you need right now.”
However, Quest Diagnostics said its average turnaround time remains one day, and Labcorp said that while it has seen increased demand, it is also delivering results within one to two days.
Another factor that could further increase demand for testing is a new strategy the Biden administration unveiled on Friday, which relies on increased testing to keep unvaccinated children in school after being exposed to Covid.
Stuart said the federal government should ensure that quick kits are available to everyone at an affordable cost or free, if possible. Test kits can cost anywhere from $ 15 to $ 40. The Biden administration said Americans with private insurance could claim reimbursement for home tests, although this has not yet started.
Dr Matilde Castiel, health and human services commissioner for Worcester, Massachusetts, said her town received 135,000 rapid test kits on Thursday as part of a state effort to increase the access to testing in low-income communities. She said she expects to have all of the kits distributed by Friday.
“We need to continue to focus on fairness because not all families can afford to pay for these test kits every time they should be tested,” Castiel said. “It’s especially important now because our numbers are on the rise.”
Brooklyn resident Tyler Hazard said he waited two and a half hours for Covid testing at CityMD in New York this week. He said he was exhibiting upper respiratory symptoms after attending an indoor rally after which someone tested positive for the virus.
Hazard is fully vaccinated and received a booster, but said he wanted to get tested before heading to a family reunion in Massachusetts with his grandparents.
He received his rapid test result the same day – negative – but was told the PCR result would take up to five days.
“We may be past the pandemic, but the pandemic is not over,” Hazard said. “It’s ridiculous that given everything we’ve been through in the past two years, we are still not sufficiently prepared for mass testing during power surges.”