How Did Reliable At-Home COVID-19 Tests Become So Hard to Get?

Mary Pestano spent all day Christmas Eve looking for a coronavirus test. 

The 26-year-old Chicago resident scanned the shelves of six different drug stores, called every local pharmacy she could find, and eventually found herself refreshing dozens of websites until she secured an appointment.

“I then spent two hours waiting in line for my test, because they were so backed up,” Pestano said. “My results came back positive, so I spent Christmas alone in my apartment.”

As a new highly contagious variant began to lead to a surge in cases, tests quickly became the one thing at the top of everyone’s holiday list. The only problem was no one could find one. Testing centers began turning people away because they ran out, people without insurance avoided tests all together because they could not afford the out-of-pocket expense, and for frontline workers like Pestano, a positive test meant no work, and no pay.

“I work at a coffee shop, and if I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” she said. “I almost didn’t want to take the test, because if I tested positive, I knew I’d be out of a week’s pay. But I knew for my safety and others I had to.”

In response to Omicron and the immediate need for more tests, President Biden announced days before Christmas that his administration purchased a half-billion rapid coronavirus tests and would distribute them for free to Americans, along with creating new vaccination and testing sites. However, experts argue that these actions are a little too late. So, we wondered how did we get to this testing scarcity two years into the pandemic, and what do experts think went wrong? Here’s what they had to say.

Why has it become so difficult to find a coronavirus test?

Experts agree that supply and demand plays a huge role in test availability. Dr. Robert L. Quigley, an infectious disease expert, immunologist and Senior Vice President and Global Medical Director at International SOS said the timing around Omicron and the holidays made it extremely difficult to get tested within many communities.

“With the surge of COVID-19 cases due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant and the busy holiday season filled with travel and social gatherings, we saw an increase in the demand for testing,” he said.

But some experts say this was also a long time coming.

“The FDA was arguably too slow in its approval process of rapid antigen tests early on in the pandemic,” said Dr. Mary T. Jacobson, Medical Chief Medical Officer at Alpha. “Manufacturers’ supply, based on predicted demand, was grossly underestimated.” 

And the current demand could have been anticipated, Dr. Jacobson added. This is because more people are indoors due to winter weather, upper respiratory infections like the flu are more common this time of year and the number of unvaccinated people is still too high to achieve herd immunity, leading to a higher number of people who are susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

Have there been any infrastructural failures that have led to this?

Nearly two years into the pandemic and with cases on the rise again, many people are looking to their elected officials with frustration and exhaustion. Dr. Jacobson believes this current testing scarcity is from a botched vaccine deployment and inadequate direction from the people at the top. 

“Infrastructure failure is due to a lack of leadership, messaging and a vaccine delivery strategy,” she said. “Scientists should report the science. Public health officials, including the WHO, should recommend public health policies based on science.”

And while vaccines are now available to anyone over the age of five, only 62.6 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated

A number that scientists say is still far too low.

The Mayo Clinic reports that the more transmissible a disease, the higher number of vaccinated individuals is needed for herd immunity. There is currently no magic number that scientists have for COVID-19, but they do report for reference that herd immunity for the Measles was achieved when 94% of the population was vaccinated. 

And while vaccines are readily available in the United States, Dr. Jacobson says that ensuring vaccines are available to other countries is much needed in fighting this pandemic. 

“Government officials, the leaders of countries and U.S. local officials should work with public health officials to implement public health policies and vaccination equity around the world, and not promote vaccine nationalism,” she added. 

Why is it important for there to be quick, reliable and accessible testing for everyone?

In simplest terms, quick and convenient testing is one way to stop the spread of the virus. When you know you have tested positive, you change your behavior and those changes protect others. 

“As a society, having access to quick and convenient testing allows us to do our part in slowing the spread by catching infections sooner rather than later,” said Dr. Quigley. “It also delivers data to scientists who are working tirelessly to better understand and identify new variants.”

So, what can be done that will better prepare us for future surges or outbreaks?

Messaging and better planning is what experts agree need to be done. Placing a larger emphasis on personal responsibility and creating a refined and iterative process for the future is what Dr. Jacobson would like to see. 

“We need to plan and invest in infrastructure in order to equitably distribute any vaccine, medicine and health supplies for the next pandemic in the U.S. and abroad,” she said. “People all over the world need equal access.”

And experts would also like to see more repetitive messaging that taking care of yourself by isolating and masking up if you do test positive, is protecting your community and one small step in helping fight this pandemic. 

“While testing is a key component to stopping the spread of COVID-19, it’s imperative that we continue to communicate the importance of getting vaccinated and booster shots,” said Dr. Quigley. “Vaccinations are one of the most effective ways to return back to normal.”

Before you go, check out our favorite cough and cold remedies (all natural!) for kids:

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