Many Americans wait in long lines at free test sites even before the Christmas and New Years rush. Many others avoid the lines and pay $ 20 or more for over-the-counter testing at home – if they can find one.
Some have stopped going to the crowded emergency rooms in hopes of being tested, putting themselves and others at greater risk, and possibly delaying emergency care for the sick and injured.
“The current demand for testing far exceeds available testing resources,” said Michael T. Osterholm, epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
That was evident this week when many people were looking for tests to take before returning to school or work. President Biden addressed the problem last month by announcing that 500 million tests would be available free of charge as of January. But his government has not given a start date for the program, and that number of tests won’t be far-reaching in a country of roughly 330 million people.
Jenna Zitomer, 25, said her family of five in Westchester, NY, has spent around $ 680 on rapid tests in the past few months. “It’s pretty insane, especially since that’s way over half a salary for me,” said Ms. Zitomer, a research specialist. âIt feels like we have to start budgeting every month now, like groceries or utilities. For my family, lack of access to tests could mean that several severely immunocompromised people are exposed to Covid-19. It basically makes it about life or death. “
Ms. Zitomer added that at her local test center “the queues have gotten so long that they have started canceling appointments and entire test days because the transit lines are causing traffic problems.”
Britt Crow-Miller, 35, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said her family had spent around $ 500 on test kits at home. With two adults and three children, a single round costs around $ 100. “Who can afford that every time someone sniffs?” She said. “As a person lucky enough to be well employed and have a partner who is also well employed, I am very aware that home testing is essentially a luxury.”
Still, Ms. Crow-Miller said, if one of the children wakes up with a scratchy throat, I don’t feel like a responsible parishioner who sends them to school without a test.
Elizabeth Sasser, 24, a Syracuse, NY-based network planning analyst, said her spending on testing – about $ 300 – was well spent. “My family also had asymptomatic positive results,” she said, “which likely would have resulted in more infections had it not been for home tests purchased beforehand.”
There have been gaps in testing capacity since the beginning of the pandemic.
In early 2020, researchers looked for the swabs and fluids needed to collect and hold samples that would be sent to laboratories for polymerase chain reaction or PCR testing, which are considered the gold standard for virus detection. The backlog of US tests lasted until this summer, in part because of the lack of tiny pieces of tapered plastic called pipette tips, which are used to move liquid quickly and precisely between vials.
The shortage of equipment is no longer the weak link in the supply chain, but new problems have emerged. One is simply that demand exceeds supply.
There is also preliminary evidence that the at-home antigen tests that many Americans rely on – at least as they are currently given with a nasal swab – may not detect some Omicron cases in the first few days of infection. Researchers say Omicron replicates faster or earlier in the throat and mouth than it does in the nose.
This could complicate the strategy to combat the current wave, where the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests Omicron is to blame 95 percent of new cases.
The home tests, which can give results in minutes, remain an important public health tool, scientists say. Positive results are particularly instructive as it can take days to get results from PCR tests. However, a negative home test should be treated with caution.
“Everyone wants these tests to do more than they can,” said Dr. Osterholm.