Many Americans have stood in long lines at free test sites since before the Christmas and New Years holiday rush. Many more bypass the lines and pay $ 20 or more for tests in. over-the-counter home sales – if they can find one.
Running out of options, some headed to overcrowded emergency rooms in the hope of getting tested, putting themselves and others at greater risk and potentially delaying emergency care for those ill. and injured.
“The current demand for testing far exceeds the available testing resources,” said Michael T. Osterholm, epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
This was evident this week, as many people searched for tests to take before returning to school or work. President Biden addressed the issue last month by announcing that 500 million tests would be available for free starting in January. But his administration has not given a launch date for the program, and that number of tests won’t go far in a country of some 330 million people.
Jenna Zitomer, 25, said her family of five in Westchester, NY, spent around $ 680 on rapid tests in recent months. “It’s pretty crazy, especially since it’s well over half of a salary for me,” said research scientist Ms. Zitomer. “It sounds like something we have to start budgeting every month now, like groceries or utilities. For my family, not having access to the tests could mean exposing several severely immunocompromised people to Covid-19. It basically makes it life or death.
Ms Zitomer added that at her local test center, “the lines have become so long that they have started to cancel appointments and full test days because drive-thru lines are causing problems. of circulation “.
Britt Crow-Miller, 35, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said her family spent around $ 500 on home testing kits. With two adults and three children, a single ride costs around $ 100. “Who can afford that every time someone sniffs?” ” she said. “As someone lucky enough to be a good employee and have a partner who is also well employed, I am very aware that home testing is essentially a luxury.”
And yet, Mrs Crow-Miller, said that if one of the children “wakes up with a sore throat, I don’t feel like a responsible member of the community who sends him to school without giving him a call. first take a test “.
Elizabeth Sasser, 24, a network planning analyst living in Syracuse, NY, said her expenses for the tests – around $ 300 – were well spent. “My family has also had asymptomatic positives,” she said, “which probably would have led to more infections had it not been for the prior purchase of home tests.”
There have been gaps in testing capacity since the start of the pandemic.
In early 2020, researchers rushed to find the swabs and fluids needed to collect and store the samples sent to labs for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing, considered the gold standard for detection. viral. The backlog of tests in the United States continued that summer, in part because there was a shortage of tiny pieces of tapered plastic, called pipette tips, which are used to quickly and precisely move liquid between vials.
Equipment shortages are no longer the weakest link in the supply chain, but new problems have arisen. The first is simply that demand exceeds supply.
There is also preliminary evidence that the home antigen tests that many Americans rely on – at least as currently administered, with a nasal swab – may fail to detect some cases of Omicron over the years. first days of infection. Researchers say Omicron replicates faster or earlier in the throat and mouth than in the nose.
This could complicate the strategy to fend off the current wave, in which the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that Omicron accounts for 95% of new cases.
Home testing, which can provide results within minutes, remains an important public health tool, scientists say. Positive results are particularly informative as it can take days to get PCR test results. But a negative home test should be treated with caution.
“Everyone wants these tests to do more than they can,” said Dr Osterholm.