COVID-19 testing failed to keep up with rising Maine cases – Community News

COVID-19 testing failed to keep up with rising Maine cases

AUGUSTA, Maine — COVID-19 testing has lagged in Maine this fall as virus cases have risen, challenging the state’s public health response by leaving many in the dark for days about whether or not they have it. virus.

The lower test rate compared to earlier in the pandemic comes as Maine reported a record 361 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday, while the seven-day infection rate remains higher than during a previous wave. Lack of testing and long wait times can hamper contact tracing efforts, making it more difficult for the state to handle high cases.

The shortage has been partly caused by staffing problems at the pharmacy, a factor that also led some suppliers to cancel COVID-19 booster injections last week. In response, the state has placed more emphasis on swab-and-send sites that rely on the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Augusta lab, as the federal government has been trying in recent days to make at-home testing more accessible. .

In the week after Thanksgiving, the Maine CDC reported only 63,000 COVID-19 tests conducted statewide. That’s about 20 percent lower than the test peak during a surge last January, when Maine ran more than 75,000 tests per week for three weeks in a row. When cases rose again in April, Maine surpassed 88,000 tests in a week.

A backlog of testing scheduling at chain pharmacies that is central to the state’s testing strategy is one reason for the slower pace. For example, Walgreens pharmacies in Bangor and Brewer were unable to schedule COVID-19 testing until Friday from Monday morning, including for patients who reported being exposed to the virus or experiencing symptoms.

Other options are available in Greater Bangor. As of Monday morning, a patient with symptoms was able to schedule a drive-thru test at Northern Light Health’s site at Bangor International Airport for later in the day, while tests at the airport of Curative, a healthcare start-up, also took place. were available on a walk-in basis.

But many more rural areas do not have large-scale testing sites and depend on pharmacies. In Farmington, where Walgreens is the only testing provider listed on Maine’s official COVID-19 testing website, Friday was the earliest day to schedule a test as of Monday morning.

dr. Peter Millard, a Waldo County physician and former epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said delays in testing were a “major handicap” for Maine as tests are needed to identify those exposed to the virus. through contact tracing to advise quarantines.

“The pandemic is as bad as it has ever been in Maine right now,” he said, “so being hampered by a lack of testing is even worse.”

Maine still tests for the virus more than most US states. According to US CDC data, only seven states performed more PCR tests per capita than Maine in the week after Thanksgiving. However, there was still a significant gap as Vermont, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia all tested their residents more than twice as fast as Maine did.

State testing figures in both Maine and the US do not account for the increased use of at-home COVID-19 tests, which provide results in 15 minutes and are most effective for symptomatic patients.

But there are limitations. While testing is free on state swab-and-send sites, home testing often costs between $14 and $24 for a pack of two. Although President Joe Biden announced last week that people with private insurance can get that reimbursed, they will still have to pay upfront. The tests also sold out quickly in pharmacies.

Maine CDC director Nirav Shah said last week that high demand and staffing challenges were the main factors contributing to the long wait times for testing. He said the agency is working to set up more tests, similar to a swab-and-send site in Westbrook that opened in October. The site was one of the few locations in the Portland area to have openings as of Monday morning for patients seeking a COVID-19 test from Wednesday.

“Access testing and testing continues to be a challenge across the country, but also here in Maine,” Shah said. “We work tirelessly to try and increase that.”