Tyne Barber got pretty lucky Thursday morning.

He came from his home in Augusta to see his doctor in Portland about his sore throat, and he stopped at Walgreens on Forest Avenue. The store hadn’t been open for even an hour, but a shipment of COVID-19 home tests had arrived that morning, and early shoppers were making a beeline for the display at the front of the store. Barber, wearing his mask, grabbed a couple boxes as well.

“It might just be a cold,” he said. “But I’m not taking any chances.”

Early data suggest the omicron variant causes symptoms similar to the common cold for people who are otherwise healthy and vaccinated. So it can be hard to know whether your sore throat is caused by that bug you always seem to get in the winter or the highly contagious virus. The surest way to know is to get tested for COVID-19.

Dr. Lori Banks, a biology professor at Bates College and an expert in molecular virology, said the loss of taste and smell is unique to COVID-19, but not everyone infected with the virus will experience that telltale symptom.

“It does make it hard to differentiate,” Banks said. “As much as we can get our hands on either at-home testing, or if you have access to testing through school or work, that would be another great way to know your status.”


But appointments are booked out for days, and at-home kits sell out as soon as they hit the pharmacy shelves. President Biden has promised to distribute 500 million rapid tests to homes across America, but the administration is still working out the details of that effort. Experts said people with even minor symptoms should act as if they have COVID-19 until they can get tested. That means staying home and isolating from other people.

“That would be the safest option until you can confirm or deny COVID infection with a test,” said Dr. Jonathan Harvey, chief medical officer at Martin’s Point Health Care.

Patrick Garvey went to the Walgreens on Forest Avenue on Wednesday and looked for at-home COVID-19 tests. The store was out that day, but restocked on Thursday morning. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Patrick Garvey went to Walgreens on Wednesday afternoon to pick up a prescription, but he scanned the shelves for at-home test kits for COVID-19.

“I’m always looking,” said Garvey, 35. “I still have some leftovers from right before the holiday, thank God.”

Garvey is vaccinated and boosted, and he said his family gathered for the holiday in Massachusetts only after everyone tested negative. But he now has a sinus infection, and his wife has a sore throat.

So he donned two masks to pick up medicine ordered by his doctor and to find extra tests at the Forest Avenue store where he had purchased them in the past. The shelves were empty then, but he planned to return Thursday after the pharmacist told him about the expected shipment. He’s a teacher on winter break and planned to recharge at home this week anyway, so the couple didn’t need to derail any plans when they started to feel sick.


“It’s more for peace of mind,” he said about the home tests.

Amelia Arnold, the pharmacy operations manager for Community Pharmacies, is also having trouble getting her hands on test kits. The Maine chain’s nine locations have been busy administering vaccines and booster shots, but they do not offer testing in person. They get dozens of calls from people who want to buy at-home tests, and Arnold herself calls her supplier every day to ask the same question. But they just don’t have enough tests to go around, and she’s only been able to get six to 12 tests for each store every week.

“We would love to be able to have more,” Arnold said. “My advice is buy them when you find them if you’re out shopping, even if you’re not looking to test yourself today. You never know when you’re going to need them, and when you do need them, you’re not going to want to drive to every pharmacy across town.”

Shelves holding COVID-19 tests were getting cleared fast Thursday at Walgreens on Forest Avenue in Portland. Contributed photo

Inside Walgreens on Thursday morning, the shelves were stocked with both the Abbott BinaxNOW test and the Quidel QuickVue test. Both kits include two tests and cost $23.99 before tax – a cost that could be prohibitive for some. Some shoppers left with just one kit, while many walked out with the maximum four boxes.

Ann-Marie and Brian Bouchard, who live in Portland, had six between them. They picked up one for a neighbor – the 2021 equivalent of a cup of sugar – and one for a family member who was returning to Maine that day after traveling. They planned to save the rest of the kits to use before and after travel in the coming months, but they said they wanted to have them on hand in case their children are exposed to COVID-19 at school.

“Maybe we’ll need them sooner,” Ann-Marie Bouchard said.


A couple of shoppers, even those with four boxes tucked under their arm, said they are concerned that the rapid tests aren’t as sensitive to infections caused by the fast-spreading omicron variant. Research issued Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration, and produced by the National Institutes of Health, said the rapid antigen tests “do detect the omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity.”

Regina Smith of Orono went to the Walgreens on Forest Avenue in Portland on Thursday to get an at-home COVID-19 test after learning that a friend she was with had potentially been exposed. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Harvey at Martin’s Point suggested that taking a second test after 24 to 36 hours to confirm the result is more reliable than taking just one. Banks said the kits should be most effective three to four days after exposure to COVID-19, or when experiencing symptoms.

“If people are symptomatic, typically your viral load is going to be higher,” she said. “If you’re sniffly, you’ve got a headache, you’re coughing, several of those symptoms altogether, chances are you’re shedding enough virus.”

She hopes manufacturing will ramp up for at-home tests, but she expects the shortage to continue for a few weeks at least. In the meantime, she said, people can prevent new mutations by preventing new infections. And how to do that?

“Get vaccinated,” Banks said. “If you’re not feeling well, don’t go out.”

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