Biden bets on rapid COVID tests but they can be hard to find
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is betting on millions more rapid, at-home tests to help curb the latest deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is overloading hospitals and threatening to shutter classrooms around the country.
But the tests have already disappeared from pharmacy shelves in many parts of the U.S., and manufacturers warn it will take them weeks to ramp up production, after scaling it back amid plummeting demand over the summer.
The latest shortage is another painful reminder that the U.S. has yet to successfully manage its COVID-19 testing arsenal, let alone deploy it in the type of systematic way needed to quickly crush outbreaks in schools, workplaces and communities.
Experts say encouraging signs last spring led to false confidence about the shrinking role for tests: falling case numbers, rising vaccination rates and guidance from health officials that vaccinated people could largely skip testing. Officials recently reversed that advice as cases and deaths driven by the delta variant surged anew.
“For all of us, there was a combination of optimism and hubris in the June timeframe that led us believe this was over,” said Mara Aspinall, a health industry researcher at Arizona State University who has become a leading authority on COVID-19 testing supplies.
Colorado’s Mesa County is among the local governments that have stopped offering rapid tests as part of their free testing programs for the general public.
“We were seeing shortages in the tests across the county, so we are really prioritizing supplies for our school districts to have quick turnaround for testing, to help them if needed,” said Stefany Busch, a county spokeswoman. She noted that tests that are processed in laboratories — which take longer to give results — remain plentiful.
Indeed, parts of the U.S. testing system are faring better than during prior surges. The large commercial labs that process the majority of tests performed at hospitals and testing sites still report plenty of capacity. Labcorp, one of the biggest laboratory chains, said last week it was delivering results for 150,000 tests daily, with the ability to double that number.
Still, rapid tests have a clear advantage in that they can be done anywhere and have a 20-minute turnaround time, but most school testing programs still rely on tests processed in labs, which return results in a day or two.
In general, the U.S. has been far more cautious about embracing rapid, at-home testing technology compared to countries like Britain that have rolled it out widely.