Millions more home tests for COVID-19 will hit store shelves, but will there be enough for Americans hoping to test themselves ahead of holiday gatherings?
Last year’s long waiting lists for testing have disappeared thanks to nearly a year of vaccinations, increased testing supplies and faster opportunities. But with many Americans unvaccinated and reports of infections among those who have been vaccinated, some are looking to have home tests for an extra layer of protection ahead of the holidays this year.
Seattle-based Janice Alpine is getting together with seven relatives for Thanksgiving, including her 97-year-old father. As long as everyone is vaccinated, she plans to bring them enough Abbott rapid tests.
“I’m just used to testing,” said Alpine, who is retired. “Even though he’s vaccinated, just getting a little sick is probably not the best thing for a 97-year-old.”
She began checking herself regularly in September after flying to Las Vegas and the East Coast on vacation. Since local pharmacies sometimes run out of tests, she usually buys five packs at a time when she finds them.
After weeks of shortages, chains such as CVS and Walgreens now say they have enough inventory and recently lifted the restrictions on the amount that can be purchased in one go. The shift came after testers ramped up production, aided by new procurement contracts and more than $ 3 billion in government aid. Home tests usually cost over $ 10 each and take about 15 minutes.
Despite the improvement, health experts warn that the winter surge could easily overwhelm stocks, especially if holiday gatherings and colder weather continue to trigger new outbreaks across the country. And they note that the US is still a long way from the cheap or free large-scale testing seen in some of the European countries that pioneered the technology.
“Unfortunately, we will still be catching up until next year or until demand drops,” said Neil Segal, a health policy specialist at the University of Maryland.
White House officials say the US plans to have about 200 million home tests a month by December, four times more than this summer. However, local deficits persist, especially in cities and suburbs with higher testing rates.
“It took me a long time to find them,” said Denise Weiss, a retired musician from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Last month, she was able to do six tests online and plans to share them with family members, especially her son and daughter, who are on the plane and train home for Thanksgiving.
Market leader Abbott says it is returning to producing 50 million BinaxNow tests a month after slumping production last summer when test demand dropped sharply. Only a few home tests are widely available across the country, and new ones, including from Acon Laboratories, are already ready to launch.
Much of the upcoming offering won’t be available at places like CVS, Walmart, and Target. Bulk purchases by federal and state officials will be distributed to community health centers, nursing homes, schools and other government agencies.
Major employers and private universities are also buying up millions of tests. In line with the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate for large employers, workers who have not been vaccinated are required to get tested weekly starting in January.
“We have a little problem right now and the math isn’t perfect,” said Mara Aspinall, a health industry researcher at Arizona State University. “While having these tests on the shelves is awesome so that people can feel personally empowered, we also have to balance where they go.”
Under pressure from the Biden administration, the FDA is accelerating home tests, authorizing four of the 13 tests available in the past two months. Quite unusually, the White House recently announced that the National Institutes of Health will help test the most promising. But it will take time for companies to conduct and distribute the tests.
The US has made a huge initial investment in vaccines, essentially betting that widespread immunity will crush the pandemic. But given that roughly 60 million Americans age 12 and older are still unvaccinated, experts say every region of the country is still vulnerable to outbreaks in states such as Michigan and New Mexico.
For testing proponents, pandemic resilience highlights the need for rapid and widespread screening for COVID-19 to quickly detect infections before they spread – an approach they have championed since the outbreak began in the United States.
Countries like the UK give out billions of tests for free and recommend taking them twice a week. If the US took this approach to everyone over the age of 12, it would need 2.3 billion tests a month, researchers at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation noted in a recent report. That’s more than seven times the 300 million monthly tests that officials hope to have by February.