Supplies of the rapid COVID-19 tests that recently became available at 65 Walgreens in Maine are likely to end without additional funding by the federal government, Maine health officials say.

Public health experts tout rapid antigen tests as a key tool to fight COVID-19, but Maine’s access to the tests could be greatly curtailed in 2021 just as the pandemic is deepening in the state and across the nation. Maine reported 283 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, 290 new cases on Friday and a record 346 new cases on Thursday.

Federal funding for COVID-19 testing of all types – including the more common molecular tests as well as rapid antigen tests – are threatened during the uncertain negotiations in Congress for a COVID-19 relief bill.

Results of rapid antigen tests can be available in 15 minutes or within hours, depending on how long it takes staff at Walgreens to run the results. Molecular test results in Maine usually take 24 to 48 hours or longer to come back, although there were some backlogs around the Thanksgiving holidays that caused delays in some places.

A relief bill has been stalled for months, but there currently seems to be traction for a $908 billion bipartisan bill that could include $16 billion for vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, are part of a bipartisan group of centrist senators and representatives trying to forge a compromise.

This fall Maine began receiving 400,000 of the rapid tests, produced by Abbott Laboratories, with 300,000 of them designated for Walgreens, where people could get a test for free without a doctor’s note. The remaining 100,000 tests were to be set aside for certain essential workers, such as teachers, paramedics, health care workers and corrections officers.

“The federal government has been providing us with Abbott BinaxNOW tests (rapid antigen tests),” said Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner. “That’s ending at the end of the month.”

It’s unclear how long current supplies of the rapid antigen tests will last at Walgreens, as the service began in mid-to-late November, depending on location.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in October announced it would ship 150 million of the rapid antigen tests to states by the end of the year to be given to patients for free. But without further federal funding, that program may not continue.

Rapid tests are crucial as a public health tool, said Dr. Michael Mina, a Harvard University epidemiologist, in a conference call with reporters. He said if patients can get results quickly they are more likely to quarantine when they are most contagious, which is early on in the infection, often before people start experiencing symptoms. Even a delay of 48 hours in getting a result can have a big impact on whether the disease is spread to others, Mina said.

In some states, the surging pandemic is causing a backlog in tests, with results taking a week or longer. Mina said in that case, the PCR molecular tests are “nearly useless.” Maine’s supply of molecular tests, which typically fluctuates between 550 and 650 molecular tests per 100,000 population, is now about at the national average, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. The supply of rapid antigen tests in comparison to the United States average is not yet being tracked.

Mina said he is advocating that Congress set aside $1 billion for at-home rapid antigen testing to be included in the $908 billion compromise deal. Frequent rapid testing can help people return to work and do activities in a safe way, while still masking and keeping social distance.

“Rapid antigen testing is one of the more important issues we can tackle to solve this crisis,” Mina said. “We can’t just keep telling people to lock yourselves indoors for the next seven months. It’s not feasible.”

Abbott is an Illinois-based company that has a lab and manufacturing plant in Scarborough and a manufacturing plant in Westbrook. An Abbott spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.

Matthew Felling, a spokesman for Sen. King, said King has met with Mina about rapid testing. He said Mina’s presentations on rapid testing are “informing Sen. King’s policy decisions.

“They show promise of being a component of the larger effort” against COVID-19, Felling said.

Maine’s 27 “swab and send” sites – which accounted for $1.6 million of a $52.7 million federal grant for testing, prevention and other epidemiological assistance – could also be at risk if a deal in Congress is not reached, said Jackie Farwell, Maine DHHS spokeswoman.

“Continued federal support and funding is vital to Maine’s pandemic response, including ensuring that Maine people have access to COVID-19 testing at the swab and send and Walgreens locations supported by Maine DHHS,” Farwell said in a statement.

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