Maine grapples with testing shortage as wave of COVID-19 is expected to mount – Community News

Maine grapples with testing shortage as wave of COVID-19 is expected to mount

Increasing demand makes COVID-19 tests difficult to obtain, even as Maine experiences widespread virus transmission with winter and the Christmas holidays approaching.

“Testing remains a challenge,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at a media briefing on Wednesday. Shah said the Maine CDC lab, along with hospital labs and private labs, are all “working as hard as they can to run as many tests as possible.”

“We’re working separately to try and secure more and more tests for different places in the state, outbreak environments, things like that,” he said. “Access testing and testing continues to be a challenge across the country, as well as here in Maine, but we are working tirelessly to try and increase that.”

A shortage of testing comes at a difficult time, given the indme cations that Maine’s already high number of cases and hospitalizations will worsen as winter and the holiday season approach. lNsufficient test capacity in the middle of a wave can mean ininfected people continue to spread the disease or get sicker while waiting for a test, or in front of test results.

Westbrook fire chief Steve Sloan said the city closed its test site in the department building on Main Street over the summer as demand dried up. However, since the reopening of a coupe months ago, things have been stable and recently improved.

“We do at least 100 tests a day,” he said on Thursday. “Just before the holiday, all our places were taken. Now they all are, but we also see people planning them further.”

Some are making appointments until the middle of next week, although the clinic will open from Sunday, according to the website.

Some people want to test before traveling or gathering with family or friends to make sure they have not contracted the virus and are not spreading it. And travel-related testing is expected to increase as the holiday season approaches. Others seek a test after coming into contact with someone who tested positive, or experiencing symptoms and thinking they could have COVID-19.

“If someone has symptoms, we’ll do our best to fit people in, but we’re in a very significant increase right now,” Sloan said.

James Tracy, 27, of South Portland, was given a test at Westbrook on Thursday afternoon, but said he was probably just lucky.

“I think someone may have canceled,” he said. “I found the site online and was able to get a test less than two hours later.”

Tracy said he scheduled the test because he had an antigen test at home that came back positive and because he had mild symptoms. He doesn’t know when or where he was exposed, but said he works as a security guard and saw family over the holidays. He is also not vaccinated.

“I just haven’t gotten around to it,” he said. “I let some time pass to make sure everything was okay, and I’ve had other vaccines in the past that I didn’t always respond well to.”

Tracy said recent fears could make him change his mind about getting vaccinated.

“I hope it stays with just minor symptoms,” he said.

The CDC reported 847 new cases of COVID-19 and three additional deaths on Thursday. On Wednesday, another 938 cases were added.

The seven-day average has risen above 400 cases again after falling over the Thanksgiving holiday due to a delay in testing and a 5-day gap in new reports from the state. Health officials in Maine and across the country expect a spate of new infections after the holidays in the coming days as the delta variant continues to spread, mainly among people who have not been vaccinated.

At the same time, officials are closely monitoring the spread of the ommicron variety, which may be more contagious. The new variant was discovered in California on Wednesday, the first confirmed case in the United States. Another case was confirmed Thursday in Minnesota.

Shah said the new variant is worrying, but people should not panic.

“I know this sounds scary, but it’s unlikely that Omicron will push us back from scratch and turn the clock back to March 2020,” he said. “There have been other variants with related mutations that have not led to widespread transmission. The bottom line is, we need more data.

“Look, the virus goes virus. Our job is to understand what that means for you and provide you with the best information available.”

Meanwhile, the number of people in hospitals in Maine remains at a high level. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday fell from 334 to 324, but the number in intensive care and on ventilators increased, with the latter setting a new record. There are 104 patients in intensive care beds and 53 people need a ventilator to breathe.

dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Wednesday that six people currently in hospital are children, including two in intensive care.

Shah also said on Wednesday that unvaccinated people are responsible for the majority of hospital admissions. The most recent count found that two in three COVID-19 patients at a Maine hospital had not been vaccinated, and 90 percent of those in intensive care were unvaccinated.

Maine also hit a new high on Wednesday with an average positive test rate of 11.6 percent, further evidence that more cases and hospitalizations are likely. State officials have said a positive test rate of less than 5 percent indicates some containment of virus transmission. The national average of tests that come back positive has also risen and is now at 7.8 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, Maine’s test rate in the past seven days ranks 14th among all states, according to data maintained by the US CDC. According to federal data, nearly 46,000 tests have been conducted in Maine in the past 7 days.

Shah said the tests processed by the Maine CDC lab are still being completed in 24 hours or less, but he said in other labs, “turnaround times were at the point of two days.”

Having to wait two or more days to get test results can be a burden.

“We’ve been doing a few things lately … one of them was looking for areas where they were, I call them test deserts,” Shah said. “So we recently set up test sites that are managed in collaboration with local groups or volunteers that we tapped into.”

Staff shortages hampering most industries also make it difficult to expand and maintain test sites, officials said.

John Koval, a spokesperson for Abbott, which produces the BinaxNOW rapid test most commonly used in the US, said demand has been strong of late.

“This is why Abbott scaled production over the summer and is now running more than 50 million tests per month,” he said. “We’re working closely with our customers — including retailers, schools and universities, employers and public health officials — to ensure that tests get where they’re needed most.”

A list of testing sites in Maine can be found online at:

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