Dec. 20—As Maine deals with its heaviest virus transmission of the pandemic and with the omicron variant now circulating, health experts are advising people to get a COVID test as one precaution before gathering or traveling for the holidays.
But that advice is hard to follow in Maine this week.
Appointments for COVID-19 tests at many retail pharmacies in Maine are booked out well past Christmas. At other local testing sites, such as the one hosted by the Westbrook Fire Department and a new site at the Portland International Jetport, demand is incredibly high and long wait times mean not everyone can get in. And supplies of rapid tests that can be done at home are selling out of stores almost as soon as they hit the shelves.
"We are booked every day that we are open right now," said Westbrook Fire Chief Steve Sloan.
Beginning Wednesday, Sloan said, the site is switching from a nasal swab test to a saliva-based test that simply requires a patient to spit into a tube, which will allow staff to move faster and conduct more tests. But the volume will still be limited by how many tests the staff can process during a shift.
At the jetport site, operated by the public health startup Curative, roughly 200 tests a day have been conducted since it opened last Wednesday. But Pasquale Gianni, a Curative spokesman, said the site can't accommodate walk-ins. The company is hoping to open another site in the Portland area, but that won't happen until January, he said.
Maine Medical Association spokesman Dan Morin said member doctors have been hearing anecdotally about the challenge of finding a test.
Testing shortages are being reported around the country, although demand is higher and supply is tighter in some states than others.
Throughout the pandemic, Maine has routinely conducted a high volume of tests compared with other states and that has remained true during the delta surge. Over the last 30 days, Maine has ranked 10th in testing rate, with 16,110 tests performed for every 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vermont, which ranks first, has conducted tests at nearly three times Maine's rate: 49,264 for every 100,000 people, during that same time period.
A corporate spokesperson for CVS, which has locations throughout Maine offering tests, said in an email Monday that the pharmacy is "able to meet the demand for on-site COVID-19 testing, even with increasing numbers of patients seeking out tests at one of our more than 4,800 CVS Pharmacy locations across the country offering testing with same day and future day appointments in most geographies."
But that doesn't match the reality here. Attempts to secure a test through the pharmacy chain's online portal found no open appointments this week anywhere in southern Maine. The same was true for Walgreens, another retail pharmacy chain that has been offering tests.
"Overall, we are able to meet this demand, with the capacity to perform millions of tests per month across our approximately 7,000 testing locations nationwide," a Walgreens spokesperson said in a email to the Press Herald. "In some areas of the country where we are seeing high demand, patients may need to book testing appointments 1-2 days in advance or expand their search area."
Another testing challenge is getting results in a timely fashion. Depending on where the results are processed, that can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours.
Rapid in-home tests, like the BinaxNow option from Abbott, were thought to be a good option for people who want to get tested before gathering or traveling. But those tests have been hard to find, both in stores and online. In addition, the tests, which can run more than $10 per test, can be cost prohibitive for some.
Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah has acknowledged in recent weeks the challenges around testing and said the state is working to secure more testing options.
Testing challenges aren't limited to Maine. There have been reports of long lines for tests in places like Boston and New York. And as omicron becomes even more widespread, and as states resist the kind of restrictive measures in place for much of 2020 and part of 2021, testing will be even more crucial.
Starting early next year, the Biden Administration announced, all health insurance companies will be required to reimburse customers for rapid antigen tests. Those without insurance will be able to access test kits free of charge at clinics and health centers.
Some states are being even more aggressive. Vermont, for instance has mandated that insurers start paying for at-home kits now, rather than waiting until next year. Other states, including Washington, New Hampshire and New Jersey, have started issuing free test kits to residents.
When New Hampshire announced on Nov. 29 that residents could sign up to get rapid tests delivered to their homes, 800,000 of the 1 million available were claimed within 24 hours. Experts believe these tests will be able to detect the omicron variant.