Two companies that manufacture COVID-19 testing supplies in Maine have indicated that they are prepared to increase production as the delta variant drives up cases and more employers require unvaccinated workers to undergo regular testing.

Meanwhile, increased demand for COVID-19 tests amid the surge has put a strain on some – but not all – testing locations and prompted some hospital networks to reopen drive-thru “swab-and-send” locations.

Earlier this summer as COVID-19 cases plummeted, three Maine factories that occupied critical niches in the national supply chain for COVID-19 tests scaled back production and their workforce. Puritan Medical Products furloughed roughly 180 employees at its Pittsfield facility that manufactures nasal swabs and Abbott Laboratories laid off more than 300 employees at Westbrook and Scarborough facilities involved in the production of rapid-result testing kits.

Demand for tests rebounded suddenly in July and August, however, as COVID case rates skyrocketed again because of the more contagious delta variant. President Biden’s announcement Thursday that all companies across the U.S. with 100 or more employees must either require vaccination or weekly testing of unvaccinated workers is likely to put additional pressure on an already crunched supply chain.

Representatives for Abbott and Puritan did not respond to specific questions Friday about hiring and production rates at their facilities. But Puritan and Abbott have dozens of job openings posted for their Maine facilities. And both companies indicated in statements that they are either increasing production or are poised to, if necessary.

“We are aware of the president’s initiative, which he announced less than 24 hours ago,” Puritan said in a statement. “We are monitoring the situation, and are ready to ramp up based on government orders as we did before.”

Guilford-based Puritan received more than $125 million from the federal government to expand the company’s manufacturing capacity in Maine last year, eventually opening a new factory in Pittsfield that would allow the company to produce 90 million swabs a month. The company is also opening a manufacturing and distribution facility in Tennessee.

Abbott spokeswoman Kim Modory said the company’s Maine workforce “continues to deliver millions of rapid tests at a time when our country needs testing, particularly rapid testing, to manage this next phase of the pandemic.”

“Abbott is again deploying resources and expertise from all over the company to help quickly meet rising demand – hiring full-time and temporary positions in Maine as Delta has become the dominant strain and new CDC guidance has called for a re-prioritization of testing,” said Modory, senior director of public affairs for diagnostics at Abbott’s Illinois headquarters. “This surge in testing capacity means tens of millions more tests will be available in the coming weeks and months where they’re needed most to help stop the spread of this virus.”

In August 2020, the federal government awarded Abbott a $760 million contract to produce 150 million of the rapid-result BinaxNOW tests manufactured in Maine and at a factory in another state. At the time, Abbott announced plans to hire an additional 1,200 people in Maine – 300 of them permanent jobs and 900 temporary positions – to dramatically increase production.

BinaxNOW tests have been used extensively nationwide by hospitals, labs, pharmacies, schools and workplaces because the platform produces an antigen test result in about 15 minutes. Pharmacies and retailers are struggling to keep stock of BinaxNOW kits that consumers can buy to test themselves.

But a New York Times story published last month claimed that workers at the Westbrook facility were ordered to destroy components of millions of test kits as sales plummeted amid increasing vaccination rates and falling COVID case rates this spring and early summer. The company disputed the report, saying the cards that were destroyed were nearing the end of their shelf life.

Meanwhile, demand for COVID tests in Maine and nationwide has surged again as the delta variant increases infection rates.

Last week, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that some people will have to wait longer or travel farther to get tested because of the supply crunch. Additionally, test results may take longer to process as labs struggle to keep up with the pace. Maine CDC’s lab, for instance, was reviewing more than 2,400 positive test results last week to identify new cases.

Shah said the “supply chain concern may persist for a while and as a result, testing may be a bit challenging for a while.”

“I want to be the first to acknowledge for you that we’ve heard loud and clear the concerns … voiced from folks across the state of Maine,” Shah said during a briefing on Wednesday. “More needs to be done to expand the availability of testing. We are working on it, both with our partners within the state as well as our partners at the federal level.”

Northern Light Health reopened drive-up testing locations at several places around the state last week, including at Mercy Hospital’s Fore River Parkway campus in Portland. Individuals can get more information on testing locations and availability at Northern Light Health sites online at NorthernLightHealth.org/Testing.

The Maine CDC has also updated its website listing sites of state-sponsored testing, which is available to the public free of charge. That list is available at maine.gov/covid19/testing.

Some private labs report that they have ample capacity for those seeking testing.

The NorDx lab affiliated with MaineHealth is currently processing more than 1,000 tests daily but was processing up to 4,000 tests a day last winter during the height of the pandemic. While demand for testing has increased recently, the lab still generally returns results within 72 hours and aims to provide results within 24 hours, a NorDx lab representative said on Friday.

Who pays for the test depends on the circumstances, however. Insurance companies will be billed for tests requested by physicians for individuals who are symptomatic or require a test for other reasons. Individuals who asymptomatic but want a test before or after traveling, to attend an event or for other reasons can obtain a test through NorDx for $110.


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