The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been unable to keep up with the positive COVID tests coming in to its lab.

At the same time, a shortage of tests nationwide as the delta variant spreads means they aren’t always available when they’re needed.

Both shortfalls are obscuring the reality of the latest COVID surge — and making it harder for us to fight it.

The problem at the Maine CDC is about manpower: The agency doesn’t have enough resources dedicated to processing positive tests to keep up.

The CDC reported 732 new cases of COVID-19 over the four-day Labor Day weekend, fewer than 200 a day.

But the agency’s director, Dr. Nirav Shah, said Wednesday that it is actually receiving more than 400 positive test results a day. Each of those tests requires individual review to sort out duplicates, which takes time.

As a result, as of Wednesday morning, the CDC was sitting on 2,441 unsorted test results. As many as 2,000, the CDC says, will be found to be unique tests.

In short, the surge of the virus in Maine, while much better than in other states, is much worse than the seven-day average of new cases would let on.

While the CDC certainly is not trying to hide the cases — the agency provided the numbers, after all — the slow processing of positive tests lessens the impact and usefulness of the daily case numbers. All the cases will eventually be incorporated into the average, but the increase will appear to be more gradual, and less alarming, than it is.

We’ve seen in other areas where rising case numbers have convinced previously unvaccinated people to get their shot. To do the same here, it would help if Mainers saw the real scope of the virus reflected in the numbers as soon as they happen.

The CDC says it has redeployed resources and hired new staff to deal with the backlog. As cases continue to rise, and as schools reopen and cold weather returns, it needs to be enough to handle an ever-increasing load.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s in the value of real-time information on what the virus is doing in our communities.

The shortage in COVID tests, particularly the at-home, fast-result variety, fits in the same category.

After trouble with manufacturing and supply early on, the companies manufacturing the tests had ramped up production during the latter part of the pandemic. But with demand falling as COVID cases decreased earlier this year, they cut back on capacity.

One of the companies, Abbott Laboratories, with plants in Maine, even destroyed rapid tests, according to The New York Times. Abbott disputes the claim.

Such shortfalls raise questions about the wisdom of putting private enterprise in charge of a critical component of preserving public health.

They also raise questions about how the Biden administration allowed such an important piece of fighting COVID to fall apart now, repeating the mistakes of the Trump administration.

In any case, now that demand is once again rising, the manufacturers are again building up capacity.

But in the meantime, it can be difficult to find an at-home test. In just one example, the shortage is keeping some Maine schools from starting a pooled-testing program.

Pooled testing, which has already caught outbreaks at Maine schools in their infancy, is a critical part of keeping kids safe and schools open. Any delay in starting a program leaves them vulnerable.

To see these kinds of shortfalls so far into the pandemic is frustrating.

As Maine heads into fall with cases rising, uncertain of what the next few months will bring, we’ll need to know exactly what we are facing as we are facing it.

 


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