Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

Nearly a year since President Joe Biden took office and promised to bring the pandemic under control, the Omicron variant threatens to overwhelm the country’s Covid-19 testing system, causing chaos for people returning to travel work or school, or visiting elderly parents.

The increase in infections has led to an explosion in the demand for fast antigen tests and more accurate PCR laboratory tests, with many retailers selling out kits and laboratories struggling to deliver results on time.

In some parts of the country, people stand for hours in freezing conditions to be tested, which increases the risk of spreading the virus. Others have been forced to cancel family gatherings, flights or delay children’s return to school due to testing problems, leading to growth frustration on the government’s pandemic response.

Dr Zeke Emanuel, a professor of health care management at the University of Pennsylvania and a former Covid advisor to Biden, said: “Everyone thought the vaccines were going to solve everything, which meant the administration took its eye off the ball. when it comes to testing. ”

Calculations by Mara Aspinall, a professor of biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University, suggest that the U.S. currently has a capacity of 260m home tests per month, although it is likely to double by March.

Many of them are used by large institutions such as schools and workplaces, making it difficult to find test kits at pharmacies or other retailers.

The White House is finalizing contracts for an additional 500m home tests – enough for two for each adult – although it has not yet said how long the contracts will take to deliver.

The US is not the only country experiencing a shortage of home tests as cases explode, fueled by the highly communicable Omicron tribe. The UK, Australia and various parts of Europe are also struggling to provide kits for anyone who wants them.

A White House official said: “The reality is that there is an unprecedented demand around the world because of Omicron, which is stretching the testing capability for many countries.”

But the situation in the US is a source of particular frustration for many. Tests were so plentiful in stock over the summer that Abbott, the largest provider of rapid tests, laid off hundreds of workers and got rid of millions of components at the time.

That decision came amid declining cases and changed the direction of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which exempted vaccinated people from testing when they were exposed to the disease.

Aspinall said: “There was an optimism around the vaccine, which was well-founded, but it led to a reaction from the administration that was not flexible enough to deal with a rapidly changing virus.”

Now U.S. hospitals are appealing to the public with only minor symptoms to stop flooding emergency rooms in search of testing due to the nationwide shortage. And some health experts warn that test delays propagate the virus and can blunt new antiviral treatments for Covid to be administered within days after infection.

“It shook my faith in the testing process,” said Mary Ellen Carafice, who works at a school in Brooklyn and canceled plans to visit her mother over Christmas due to delays in receiving test results.

The week before Christmas, she waited four days to receive results from a PCR test conducted by LabQ Diagnostics – a company that has been warned by New York authorities that it may be a violation of “false advertising” laws. because he did not keep his promise to deliver results within. 48 hours.

The delays forced Carafice, who had Covid-19 symptoms, and her partner to discuss a further PCR test with an alternative supplier and join the race to detect and buy fast antigen tests. She later tested negative, but her partner got a false positive result and Carafice was forced to eat Christmas dinner with her elderly mother over a zoom call.

LabQ did not respond to a request for comment, but a recorded phone message said the results could take up to five days to deliver this week. The waiting time to talk to a LabQ operator was more than an hour.

Concerns about safety related to inadequate testing led to the closure of public schools in Chicago this week following a vote by teachers’ unions. Some US states have started restrict access to rapid antigen testing provided publicly to vulnerable age groups due to limited supply. And the CDC has issued controversial guidelines that do not require a person with a Covid infection to test negative to leave isolation after five days – a move that experts say is due to a lack of tests and the risk to confuse the public.

“I just wish the US followed the UK and Germany, where their governments supported the pandemic from a very early stage to expand the test supply chain and provided messages that rapid testing is a valued component of the pandemic response,” says Carri Chan, director of Columbia Business School’s healthcare program.

Inconsistent messages from the U.S. administration about the value of rapid testing have left the private sector reluctant to increase production, leaving the nation exposed when global demand skyrocketed due to Omicron, she added.

Dr Henry Walke, director of the CDC’s division of preparedness and emerging infections, warned on Friday against the use of self-administered antigen tests as a way to decide whether to return to work or not.

“A negative antigen test does not necessarily mean that there is an absence of a virus,” he said.

Abbott and other manufacturers of rapid antigen tests are now again increasing manufacturing capacity, but are struggling with labor shortages, shipping delays and competition for components amid the global increase in demand for tests.

“It took a year and a half for the US to accept the important role of rapid testing. Overseas this was not the case,” an Abbott spokesman said.

“We have always said that testing, along with vaccines, would be necessary to get people in the office, children at school, events canceled and to keep care facilities safer.”

The largest suppliers of laboratory tests in the US are also struggling to keep up with demand. Covid testing has increased by 130 percent to a record 2.2 million tests every day since the Omicron variant was identified in late November, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. PCR and other molecular tests alone increased by 40 percent to 1.7 million tests each day. Antigen testing is probably counted too little with many states not reporting or collecting that data amid widespread home testing usage.

Quest Diagnostics said the average turnaround time for results blew out within 24 hours to two to three days due to the Omicron boom. Other industry participants, who did not want to be named, said some laboratories face labor shortages due to staff absenteeism related to infections.

Elliot Glotfelty, a Baltimore student who stood for a PCR test for four hours on Wednesday, told the FT he fears he could catch Covid while he waits in line. By Friday night, he still had not received his result.

“Waiting for long periods of time kind of defeats the purpose of testing,” says Glotfelty, who was tested after experiencing symptoms. “My brother and sister teach at a city school and sometimes they do not get results for more than a week, which has abandoned the purpose of detection.”

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