Any health official worth a damn says that beating back the COVID surge requires universal masking, widespread vaccination and frequent testing.

Yet in the midst of a record-breaking surge more than 18 months since the virus first appeared, it remains difficult to get even the people who want one either a shot or a timely test. It is a failure that is helping fuel the surge — and it will do the same to the next one if something doesn’t change.

COVID cases were already rising in Maine prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. But Mainers hoping to get a booster shot or a test before meeting family and friends for dinner were often out of luck.

High demand, coupled in some cases with staffing shortages at pharmacies, meant vaccine and testing slots filled up quick. If you were lucky enough to get an appointment for a test, similar bottlenecks meant meant you might not get a result for a while, cutting down on its effectiveness. Meanwhile, home tests, which are not as accurate as the lab tests but can tell a person if they are infectious, were hard to track down as well.

That’s inexcusable. If people can’t get vaccinated or tested when they want, they’ll be more likely to get the virus and to spread it.

State officials recognize the problem. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the state is working to secure more tests and get them where they are needed; go to maine.gov/covid19/testing for a list of testing sites. The state is also trying to increase vaccination capacity, including through a new walk-in clinic at the Augusta Armory.

Maine is doing better than most, ranked 14th among all states in COVID testing rates. Vaccinations continue to tick upward.

But it’s not enough. Nearly 14% of lab-based COVID tests are coming back positive, meaning Maine is not testing nearly enough. As a result, it is missing a lot of cases, and unable to control the spread. And with pharmacies struggling to deliver shots, who knows how many people will be kept from a booster shot before Christmas.

For that, you can blame the delta variant. With cases falling earlier this year, manufacturers stopped making tests in high numbers, and vaccination and testing sites were shut down.

But then delta hit and it has taken a while for production to ramp back up. What’s more, the fast-spreading virus has affected the workforce everywhere, making it harder for pharmacies to be the focus of vaccine and testing efforts, as they are meant to be. Relying so heavily on the private sector to stop this surge simply isn’t working.

President Joe Biden has initiated a plan to dramatically increase production of rapid tests while providing them at no cost through health insurance, though only through cumbersome reimbursements.

But that will still leave the U.S. behind most of Europe, where rapid tests are cheap and widely available. In fact, the U.K. simply sends tests directly to residents who request them, as did Germany until recently. A pilot project did the same recently in New Hampshire; there’s no reason it can’t be done nationwide.

We need more tests, and we need them in the hands of people who will use them to stop the spread of COVID, and put their own mind at ease.

We need unfettered access to vaccines throughout Maine, and the nation.

And because in all likelihood this isn’t the last surge we’ll experience, we need a system that can ramp up just as quickly as the infections do, with pop-up testing and vaccination clinics ready to go when demand spikes.

This surge will slow at some point, and there will be pressure to say that it’s over for COVID.

But experience tells us it’s not, and whether that surge is from delta, omicron or some other variant, we have to be better prepared for it.


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