Increasing demand has made COVID-19 tests hard to get even as Maine experiences widespread virus transmission with winter and the year-end holidays looming.

“Testing remains a challenge,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a media briefing on Wednesday. The Maine CDC laboratory, along with hospital-based labs and private labs, are all “working as hard as they can to churn out as many tests as possible,” he said.

“We are separately working to try to secure more and more tests for different places across the state, outbreak settings, things of that nature,” he added. “Testing and testing access remains a challenge nationwide, as well as here in Maine, but we’re working tirelessly to try to increase that.”

The shortage of tests comes at a difficult time, given the indications that Maine’s already high case and hospitalization numbers are going to get worse as winter and the holidays approach. Inadequate testing capacity in the midst of a surge can mean infected people continue to spread the disease or become sicker while waiting for a test, or for test results. 

Westbrook Fire Chief Steve Sloan said the city shut down its testing site at the department building on Main Street over the summer because demand dried up. It reopened a couple months ago, and things have been steady and have picked up recently.

“We’re doing at least 100 tests per day,” he said Thursday. “Right before the holiday, all our slots were filled. Now, they all are, too, but we’re also seeing people schedule them further out.”

Some are making appointments into the middle of next week, although the clinic does have openings starting Sunday, according to its website.

Some people want to test before they travel or gather with family or friends to ensure they haven’t contracted the virus and don’t spread it. And travel-related tests are expected to increase as the year-end holidays draw closer. Others seek a test after coming in contact with someone who tested positive, or they are experiencing symptoms and think they could have COVID-19.

“If anyone has symptoms, we’ll do our best to fit people in, but we’re in a very significant surge right now,” Sloan said.

James Tracy, 27, of South Portland, got a test in Westbrook on Thursday afternoon and said he was probably just lucky.

“I think someone may have canceled,” he said. “I found the site online and was able to get a test less than two hours later.”

Tracy said he scheduled the test because he took an at-home antigen test that came back positive and because he’s had some mild symptoms. He doesn’t know when or where he might have been exposed, but said he works as a security guard and saw family over the holidays. He’s also unvaccinated.

“I just haven’t gotten around to it,” he said. “I was letting some time pass to make sure everything was OK with that, and I’ve had other vaccines in the past that I didn’t always respond well to.”

Tracy said the recent scare might change his mind about getting vaccinated.

“I hope it stays with just minor symptoms,” he said.

The CDC reported 847 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and three additional deaths. Another 938 cases were added on Wednesday.

The seven-day average rose to 404 cases, surpassing 400 again after a drop over the Thanksgiving holiday because of a slowdown in testing and a five-day gap in new reports from the state. Health officials in Maine and nationwide are expecting a post-holiday surge of new infections in the coming days as the delta variant continues to spread, primarily among people who have not been vaccinated.

KEEPING AN EYE ON OMICRON

At the same time, officials are closely watching the spread of the omicron variant, which is potentially more contagious. The new variant was detected in California on Wednesday, the first confirmed case in the United States. Another case was confirmed in Minnesota on Thursday.

Shah said the new variant is concerning, but people shouldn’t panic.

“I know this sounds scary, but it’s unlikely that omicron will put us back at square one and rewind the clock to March of 2020,” he said. “There have been other variants with concerning mutations that did not lead to widespread transmission. The bottom line there, again, is: We need more data.

“Look, the virus is going to virus. Our job is to understand what that means for you and equip you with the best available information.”

Meanwhile, the number of people in Maine hospitals with COVID-19 fell slightly but remains high, declining by 10 to 324 on Thursday. However, the number in critical care and on ventilators increased, and the latter set a new record. There are 104 patients in critical care beds and 53 people who require a ventilator to help them breathe.

On Wednesday, Shah said that six of the hospitalized people were children, including two in intensive care.

Shah also said Wednesday that unvaccinated people are driving the bulk of hospitalizations. The most recent count showed two out of every three COVID-19 patients in a Maine hospital were unvaccinated, and for those in critical care, 90 percent were unvaccinated.

Maine also reached a new high Wednesday with an 11.6 percent average positive test rate, further evidence that more cases and hospitalizations are likely. State officials have said a positive test rate under 5 percent indicates some containment of virus transmission. The national average of tests that come back positive also has been rising and is now 7.8 percent, according to the U.S. CDC.

Sofia Cook, 16, of Falmouth, swabs herself at the COVID-19 testing site Thursday at the Westbrook Public Safety building. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

TESTING RATE REMAINS HIGH

Nationally, over the last seven days, Maine’s rate of testing ranks 14th among all states, according to data tracked by the U.S. CDC. Nearly 46,000 tests have been conducted in Maine over the last seven days, according to the federal data,

Shah said the tests processed by the Maine CDC lab are still being turned around in 24 hours or less, but he said that at other labs “turnaround times have been on the two-plus day mark.”

If someone has to wait two or more days to get test results, that can be a burden.

“We’ve done a couple of things lately … one of which has been to look for areas where there have been, I’ll call them testing deserts,” Shah said. “So we’ve recently set up testing locations that are operated in partnership with either local groups or volunteers that we’ve tapped.”

Staffing shortages that are hampering most industries also are making it difficult to expand and sustain testing sites, officials said.

John Koval, a spokesman for Abbott, which produces the BinaxNOW rapid test that is the most widely used in the U.S., said demand has been strong of late.

“This is why Abbott scaled up manufacturing over the summer and are now making more than 50 million tests per month,” he said. “We are working closely with our customers – including retailers, schools and universities, employers and state public health officials – to ensure tests get to where they’re needed most.”

A list of testing sites in Maine can be found online at: maine.gov/covid19/testing.


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