As COVID-19 cases surge across the state and nation, some Maine residents are once again struggling to schedule tests after potential exposure to the coronavirus or to comply with travel and workplace requirements.

Demand for COVID-19 tests in Maine has skyrocketed during the past six weeks as the more contagious delta variant drives another spike in infections. On Wednesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention received more than 8,300 test results, which is the most since mid-May when falling case loads and rising vaccination rates fed hopes that the pandemic was fading.

While the pace of testing is still significantly slower than last winter and early spring, when Maine CDC routinely processed or reviewed 10,000 to 18,000 results a day, agency staff were working through a backlog of 1,700 positive test results this week to identify new cases.

“The heightened demand for rapid tests in recent weeks has lengthened the wait time to get an appointment at some testing sites, as was the case at other times during the pandemic when demand for testing increased dramatically,” Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said in an email Wednesday. “We will continue to work with providers as they strive to cope with that increased demand for testing. Individuals who are not feeling well should stay home and contact their medical providers.”

The delays and limited availability in some areas are frustrating some people trying to schedule tests.

Colin Powers has been struggling for several days to find a site that can test himself, his wife and two children after a third child – a fully vaccinated teenager – began exhibiting symptoms and tested positive last weekend.

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A staff member at InterMed, the family’s health care provider, told them the office was only able to conduct about 10 tests per day because of limited supplies. Powers said the closest appointment he could find Wednesday at a pharmacy chain willing to test the other family members was in New Hampshire, so he planned to try again first thing Thursday.

While the teen is recovering well, Powers said, the family still wants the peace of mind of knowing whether other family members need to isolate or quarantine.

“So at 6 o’clock tomorrow, I will get up and try to get the rest of us tested,” Powers said. “We’d like to go get our test and then be able to plan accordingly.”

InterMed spokesman John Lamb said the provider is “doing OK with our supply of rapid tests.”

“Although there was a temporary blip in the supply chain, we have been able to maintain an inventory that has allowed us to continue offering rapid tests,” Lamb said.

“We were able to secure additional rapid tests and also used the PCR when clinically appropriate,” Lamb said Wednesday night in an email. “We have been able to provide a Covid test for any patient who has needed one, whether it was a rapid test or PCR.”

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Testing locations are feeling the crunch. In some cases, facilities are reserving appointments for symptomatic individuals or are giving higher priority to processing certain results.

“We are seeing an increasing demand mostly due to symptoms or exposure, but also due to travel requirements,” said Chris Facchini, spokesman for Northern Light Health, Maine’s second-largest health care network. “Due to this we need to prioritize those where the result is needed clinically and to respond to getting essential workers cleared for duty. This will cause delay in test results for things like travel.”

Penobscot Community Health Care, which is based in Bangor but has offices from Belfast to Jackman, had moved to offering testing at various local practices earlier this year as demand for tests ebbed. But Penobscot recently centralized testing once again at a Bangor office.

Dr. Noah Nesin, chief medical officer for the nonprofit health care provider, said they have been able to keep up and have adequate supplies but he expects demand for testing to continue to increase amid the ongoing surge. Nesin said weekly testing figures jumped from about 200 in July to 458 two weeks ago with even higher numbers since.

“The demand definitely has increased over the past couple of weeks but it has not been overwhelming,” Nesin said.

Much of the testing is currently being carried out by retail pharmacies, such as Walgreens or CVS. Walgreens representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

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CVS spokesman Joe Goode said he could not provide Maine-specific figures but said the chain continues to be able to keep up with COVID testing in most locations despite increasing demand. CVS offers appointments for either rapid-result tests or self-swab tests at the drive-thru.

“We are experiencing high demand for over-the-counter testing products and are working with our suppliers to meet that demand,” Goode said in a statement. “In the event that any of our stores experience a temporary shortage, we will re-supply them as quickly as possible.”

Travelers who need a negative test result to cross into Canada, board an international flight or cruise ship, or to return to work after being at home could also be affected by the delta-driven surge and accompanying demand for testing.

Two hospitals in Aroostook County, Northern Light AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle and Cary Medical Center in Caribou, recently stopped offering testing to travelers, according to the Bangor Daily News. The hospitals, which are both located near a busy border crossing with Canada, made the decisions as demand increased from symptomatic individuals or others with medically necessary tests.

Jon Platt of South Portland recently discovered the headaches of arranging pre-travel tests so he and his wife could visit their son in Portugal, which requires a negative result within a few days of arrival.

InterMed initially told Platt the couple could be tested there but, when he called to double-check amid the surge in cases, he was informed the network was no longer offering tests to travelers. He then struggled to find somewhere willing or able to conduct a molecular-based PCR test on a Sunday and provide results in time for them to depart on Tuesday.

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“Sunday-to-Tuesday travel is tricky,” Platt said. “We never thought about that when we were booking.”

Additionally, Platt said, the testing location look-up website where the Maine CDC directs visitors was filled with what he said was inaccurate, outdated or incomplete information.

That website, get-tested-covid19.org, is operated by a third party and provides information about both free, state-sponsored testing as well as sites that charge for testing. A separate website maintained by the Maine CDC, maine.gov/covid19/testing, provides a list of state-sponsored swab-and-send and rapid-result testing sites.

Ultimately, the couple canceled their trip – not because of the testing headache but because, although the Platts are fully vaccinated, they decided it wasn’t worth the risk of exposure from potentially large numbers of unvaccinated travelers amid the delta-driven surge. But Platt said he was frustrated and surprised by the lack of testing options.

One potential wild card moving forward, both in Maine and nationally, is the availability of a key rapid-result testing system.

The BinaxNOW testing platform produced by Abbott Laboratories – and manufactured in Maine – has been widely used nationwide because of its ability to deliver antigen tests in minutes rather than days for molecular-based tests. The federal government purchased billions of dollars worth of the tests, and BinaxNOW has become an “instrumental” part of Maine’s COVID detection and response architecture, according to Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah.

But a report in The New York Times last week said that Abbott ordered workers in Maine to destroy millions of the cards used in the testing system earlier this year as demand for tests waned. The company has since disputed that report, saying the cards that were destroyed were approaching the end of their shelf life.

The incident has raised concerns about the availability of the popular rapid-result testing system at a time when the delta variant is driving up case numbers and tens of millions of school children are headed back into classrooms. But Long, the Maine CDC spokesman, said the issue is not expected to impact Maine’s plans to offer “pooled” testing of students and staff in schools followed by rapid-result testing of individuals within that pool when needed.

“The recent increased demand for BinaxNOW and other rapid-results antigen tests is not disrupting plans to continue offering free pooled testing at Maine schools,” Long said. “Our testing coordinator spoke with representatives of Abbott today, and we are working with the company on fulfillment of Maine orders.”


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