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COVID tests: Tight supplies for rapid kits, plenty for lab exams

A nationwide shortage of COVID-19 rapid test kits is showing up in the Tri-State area, but medical facilities say there are plenty of the lab tests.

Early this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of a "temporary shortage" in over-the-counter and point-of-care testing supplies.

"To help preserve rapid test kits and supplies and meet the current test demand, CDC recommends the use of laboratory-based testing whenever possible," the advisory reads.

According an Associated Press report, manufacturers say it will take them weeks to ramp up production of the rapid tests, after scaling it back amid plummeting demand over the summer.

In recent days, Herald-Mail Media has received reports that the rapid tests have not been available at some pharmacies. At the same time, lab test facilities, such as the drive-thru operated by Meritus Health, continue to administer hundreds of exams per day.

Rapid tests can be done anywhere and have a 20-minute turnaround time, according to the AP report. It can take a day or two to get tests back from a lab.

Tara Burke, a CVS spokeswoman, said the company is meeting the demand for COVID-19 testing "in most locations," even as demand rises for those tests.

"Patients have the option to schedule an appointment for either a rapid COVID-19 test, with results available within hours, or a COVID-19 test at the pharmacy drive-thru windows," she wrote in an email. "The self-swab collected at the CVS Pharmacy drive-thru window is processed by an independent, third-party lab and those results are generally available within 1-2 days. In addition, CVS stores across the country offer multiple over-the-counter COVID-19 test kits, allowing patients to self-test at home."

Because of the high demand, she wrote, CVS has instituted purchase limits of six (on cvs.com) and four (at brick-and-mortar pharmacies) for the Abbott BinaxNOW, Ellume and Quidel tests.

"We’re continuing to work with our suppliers to meet customer demand," she wrote.

'In a good position'

Meanwhile, hundreds of people per day are getting lab tests at the Meritus drive-thru facility on Crayton Boulevard.

"Last week at the site, Meritus Health tested an average of 725 people each day," Joelle Butler, a Meritus Health spokeswoman, wrote in an email on Wednesday.

The numbers have varied through the various surges of the pandemic, Butler reported.

When the site opened in April 2020, it as administering fewer than 100 tests per day. But that number rose to more than 1,000 a day in late November, as the holiday season approached.

The per-day average stayed at 500 to 700 through December and much of January, during a pandemic peak in the Tri-State area.

"We have remained at around 300 or fewer tests daily for most of 2021, not hitting less than 100 again on a weekday until early June," Butler wrote in an email Friday. "After July 4, we tested in the hundreds most days, hitting 200 again by the end of that month. In late August 2021, we were as high as 616 one day."

September has included days in the range of about 400 to 800 tests so far.

"Testing supply inventory is tracked weekly at Meritus Health, and we are currently in a good position with supplies and have no indication our supply chain will be disrupted," Butler wrote.

The drive-thru screening site is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. No appointments are necessary.

Likewise, the Washington County Health Department reports no shortages.

"We use PCR tests and have not had any issue with supplies," Danielle Stahl, health department spokeswoman, wrote in an email Wednesday.

A PCR test detects genetic material of the virus using a lab technique called "polymerase chain reaction," hence the "PCR" moniker.

'Optimism and hubris'

Experts say encouraging signs last spring led to false confidence about the shrinking role for tests: falling case numbers, rising vaccination rates and guidance from health officials that vaccinated people could largely skip testing.

Officials recently reversed that advice as cases and deaths driven by the delta variant surged anew.

“For all of us, there was a combination of optimism and hubris in the June timeframe that led us believe this was over,” said Mara Aspinall, a health industry researcher at Arizona State University who has become a leading authority on COVID-19 testing supplies.

Parts of the U.S. testing system are faring better than during prior surges. The large commercial labs that process the majority of tests performed at hospitals and testing sites still report plenty of capacity. Labcorp, one of the biggest laboratory chains, said last week it was delivering results for 150,000 tests daily, with the ability to double that number.

Still, rapid tests have an advantage in that they can be done anywhere and have a 20-minute turnaround time.

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized only about a half-dozen rapid, at-home tests, compared with more than 400 laboratory tests. Many experts, including FDA regulators, consider laboratory technology the “gold standard” for accuracy because it can detect even minute levels of virus in the nose.

Abbott Laboratories — the country’s largest rapid test maker — said it is producing “tens of millions” of its BinaxNOW tests per month and working to increase capacity.

The New York Times recently reported that over the summer Abbott shut down one of its factories, laid off employees and destroyed some testing components.

Abbott said those decisions came after vaccinations climbed and demand for testing plunged. The destroyed supplies had limited shelf life and were not viable for sale in the U.S. or for donation overseas, according to Abbott.

“It is now very clear that testing is a necessary companion to vaccines and Abbott is ramping up again,” said a company spokesperson.

The Biden administration’s recently announced purchase plans should help stabilize supplies. But testing experts said the government could have stepped in months ago.

“We can’t let the market determine our testing supplies, which is what happened here,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “These tests are essential for public health purposes, so we have to have supply at all times.”

This article first published in The Herald-Mail in September 2021 and online at HeraldMailMedia.com.