New obstacle to home COVID-19 testing – the festive season
Washington Millions of other home tests for COVID-19 are hitting store shelves, but will there be enough for Americans hoping to get themselves tested before holiday gatherings?
Gone are last year’s long queues for testing, thanks to nearly a year of vaccinations, increased testing supplies and faster options. But with many Americans not vaccinated and reports of infections among those who did get the injection, some are looking to home tests for an extra layer of safety ahead of this year’s festivities.
Janice Alpine of Seattle meets seven of her relatives on Thanksgiving Day, including her 97-year-old father. While everyone is vaccinated, she plans to run enough rapid Abbott tests for them to use.
Albin, who is retired, said, “I’m used to the test now. Even though he’s been vaccinated, just being a little sick is probably not the best thing for a 97-year-old.”
She began testing herself regularly in September after traveling to Las Vegas and the East Coast for vacation. Since local pharmacies sometimes sell the tests, they usually buy five packs at a time when they find them.
After weeks of shortages, chains like CVS and Walgreens now say they have ample supply and recently lifted restrictions on how many can be purchased at one time. The turnaround comes after test makers ramped up production, spurred by more than $3 billion in new purchase contracts and aid from the government. Home tests are usually over $10 each and take about 15 minutes.
Although the picture is improving, health experts warn that the winter surge could easily overwhelm supplies, especially if holiday gatherings and cold weather continue to fuel outbreaks across the country. They noted that the United States is still far from conducting the kind of cheap or free large-scale testing seen in some European countries that were early adopters of this technology.
“Unfortunately, we’re still playing catch-up until next year or until demand subsides,” said Neil Segal, a health policy specialist at the University of Maryland.
White House officials say the United States is on track to perform about 200 million home tests per month by December, four times the number this summer. However, site shortages persist, particularly in cities and suburban communities with higher testing rates.
“I haven’t found them in the longest time,” said Dennis Weiss, a retired musician in a Philadelphia suburb.
She managed to take six tests online last month and plans to share with family members, especially her son and daughter who are traveling home by plane and training for Thanksgiving.
Market leader Abbott says it’s back to producing 50 million BinaxNow tests per month, after cutting production last summer when demand slumped. Only a few home tests are widely available across the country with new tests ever set, including from Acon Laboratories.
Not many upcoming supplies will be available at places like CVS, Walmart, and Target. Bulk purchases will be distributed by federal and state officials to community health centers, nursing homes, schools and other government facilities.
Big employers and private universities also buy millions of tests. Under the vaccine mandate issued by the Biden administration to large employers, workers who have not been vaccinated are supposed to be tested weekly starting in January.
“We have a bit of a challenge now and the math isn’t perfect,” said Mara Aspinal, a health industry researcher at Arizona State University. “While having these tests on the shelves is great for people to feel the power of character, we also have to balance where they go.”
Under pressure from the Biden administration, the Food and Drug Administration has cleared home tests at a faster pace, allowing four of the 13 tests now available in the past two months. In an unusual move, the White House recently announced that the National Institutes of Health will help screen the most promising institutes. But it will take time for companies to run and distribute the tests.
The United States has made huge initial investments in vaccines, essentially betting that widespread immunity will crush the epidemic. But with nearly 60 million Americans ages 12 and older yet to be vaccinated, experts say every region of the country is still vulnerable to the type of outbreak in states like Michigan and New Mexico.
For test advocates, the ongoing pandemic underscores the need for rapid and widespread testing for COVID-19 to quickly catch infections before they spread — an approach they have advocated since the start of the outbreak in the United States.
Countries like Britain are handing out billions of tests for free and recommend testing twice a week. Researchers from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation noted in a recent report that if the United States took this approach to everyone 12 and older, it would need 2.3 billion tests per month. That’s more than seven times the 300 million monthly tests officials hope the country will have by February.
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