Many Americans have been waiting in long lines at free trial sites since before the Christmas and New Years holiday fever. Many others are skipping the lines and paying $ 20 or more for OTC home tests, if they can find one.
With no options, some have headed for crowded emergency rooms.
“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.
That was evident this week, as many people searched for tests to take before heading back to school or work. President Biden addressed the problem last month by announcing that 500 million tests would be available for free starting in January. But his administration hasn’t given a launch date for the program, and that amount of testing won’t go far in a country with a population of about 330 million.
Jenna Zitomer, 25, said her family of five in Westchester, New York, has spent about $ 680 on rapid tests in recent months. “It’s pretty crazy, especially since that’s more than half a salary for me,” said Ms Zitomer, research specialist. “It feels like something we need to start budgeting for every month now, like groceries or utilities. For my family, not having access to testing could mean exposing several severely immunosuppressed people to Covid-19. That basically makes it life or death. “
Ms. Zitomer added that at her local testing center, “the lines have gotten so long that they started canceling appointments and full days of testing because the transit lines cause traffic problems.”
Britt Crow-Miller, 35, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said her family has spent about $ 500 on home test kits. With two adults and three children, a single round costs about $ 100. “Who can afford that every time someone sneezes?” she said. “As a person fortunate enough to have a good job and have a partner who is, too, I am well aware of the fact that home testing is essentially a luxury.”
And yet Ms. 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 sending them to school without first getting tested.”
Elizabeth Sasser, 24, a network planning analyst who lives in Syracuse, New York, said her testing expenses, about $ 300, were well spent. “My family also had asymptomatic positive results,” he 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 scrambled to find the swabs and fluids needed to collect and store samples. being sent to laboratories for tests of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, considered the gold standard for viral detection. Testing backlogs in the U.S. continued through that summer, in part because there was a shortage of small conical plastic pieces, called pipette tips, which are used to move liquid quickly and precisely between vials.
Equipment shortages are 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 home antigen tests that many Americans rely on, at least as they are currently administered, with a nasal swab, may miss some cases of Omicron in the early days of infection. Researchers say that Omicron replicates faster or earlier in the throat and mouth than in the nose.
That could complicate the strategy to roll back the current wave, in which the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that Omicron accounts for 95 percent of new cases.
Home tests, which can deliver results in minutes, remain an important public health tool, scientists say. Positive results are especially informative because 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.