Seeking a COVID-19 test means sold out signs, long lines

NEW YORK (AP) — President Joe Biden has promised to distribute hundreds of millions of free COVID-19 tests and open more testing sites to fight the spike in infections, but the stepped-up effort won’t happen. not in time for people who want to find out if they are infected before the holidays.

Americans have searched pharmacies for rare home tests or cold-weather wait times at testing centers across the country.

“Not everyone can take three hours off work to get tested, but it feels like that’s the only thing we have the power to do,” said Jordan Thomas, who waited nearly four hours for a test this week in the Brooklyn borough of New York. City.

In Atlanta, pharmacies ran out of home tests and police shut down testing sites as traffic slowed for half a mile or more. A drive-thru testing site in Columbia, South Carolina that for months had faster lines than some nearby Chick-fil-A restaurants had waits of an hour or more before Christmas. Workers warned that results could take longer than the usual 24 to 36 hours.

Fueling the growing demand for testing is a mix of factors, including families seeking to keep holiday gatherings safe and people needing to prove they are virus-free to travel, work or go to school. Adding to the pressure is the extra-contagious variant of omicron, which has a multiplier effect on the number of people seeking testing after being exposed to an infected person.

In the United States, infections are averaging about 149,000 a day, down from 75,000 a day in early November.

“The rise in infections is quite dramatic,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has tracked COVID-19 testing efforts during the pandemic.

Testing can help ensure safety at gatherings, even if people don’t show symptoms and haven’t been exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Get a test before you gather,” agency director Dr Rochelle Walensky said this week as omicron led to a surge in cases ahead of the holidays.

But efforts to follow that advice and meet the requirements of some employers and schools have strained testing capacity in many places.

Detjon Bushgjokaj was among hundreds of people seeking a test in Everett, Massachusetts, just north of Boston. He waited around 90 minutes after his 6-year-old daughter, who has yet to be vaccinated, tested positive after falling ill with a fever.

“As soon as my wife called, I left work and came here. I work with a lot of people and in different places, so I had to make sure,” said Bushgjokaj, who is vaccinated. He said his daughter’s illness had added uncertainty to their holiday.

In New York, pharmacies posted signs warning customers they were out of tests. Lines wrapped around blocks at some testing sites, with some saying results could take three to four days.

For the next day’s results, one site listed a price of $150. For results in two hours, the price was $389.

Although the technology to process PCR lab tests takes less than a day, testing sites and labs face staffing issues like many other businesses, said Mara Aspinall, who teaches biomedical diagnostics at the Arizona State University and sits on the board of OraSure, a COVID-19 test provider.

Manufacturers are scrambling to increase supplies. Abbott said it is seeing “unprecedented demand” for its popular BinaxNOW tests and plans to expand production to 70 million tests in January from more than 50 million this month. The company said it could further increase production in the coming months.

In the meantime, Walgreens said it is limiting people to four boxes per purchase in stores and online. CVS said it is limiting people to six kits per purchase.

In New York, officials planned to distribute rapid home tests to people facing long waits at testing sites to help reduce demand. But the city is also struggling to secure testing.

Biden announced on Tuesday that the federal government will for the first time begin sending 500 million free rapid tests directly to Americans in January. Details have yet to be released, but officials say people will be able to use a new website to order their tests, which will be mailed to them at no cost.

The government will use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests. New federal testing sites will also be set up, starting this week in New York.

The changes come after public health experts for months urged US officials to make testing more accessible, pointing to countries like the UK and Germany, which have distributed billions of tests to the public and recommended people to test themselves twice a week.

Experts say the latest efforts still won’t be enough for all Americans to test at this rate. The United States would need 2.3 billion tests per month for anyone 12 and older to do so, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

The availability of tests varies across the country.

At a city-run children’s day camp in Fort Collins, Colorado, boxes of rapid tests were available for free this week. Staff members told parents to take as much as they needed.

Still, demand for testing is only expected to increase after the holidays, when people want to know if their travels and gatherings have led to infections, noted Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of Health Officials. States and Territories.

And high demand will likely persist well into 2022 as people seek to resume activities they abandoned during the pandemic, Aspinall said.

“Pandemic fatigue has turned into ‘I want to do what I want, when I want.’ And testing provides that knowledge and that power,” she said.

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Collins reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Associated Press writers Matthew Perrone in Washington, Philip Marcelo in Boston, Mike Sisak in New York and Mead Gruver in Fort Collins, Colorado, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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