It’s officially our third pandemic year, omicron cases are surging, and now, it’s almost impossible to get a COVID-19 test.
If you’ve tried to stock up on rapid tests in the past couple of weeks, you likely know this first-hand—drugstore stocks of at-home antigen tests (aka rapid tests) are depleted across the country; clinics are drowning in demand, facing record wait-times and regularly running out of test kits; even online orders of rapid tests have become hard to hunt down (and, for many, ultimately unaffordable). The shortage of COVID-19 tests is so bad in some states that Indiana announced earlier this week it would start restricting eligibility for who can take rapid antigen tests.
The reasons for the shortage are many—and some are surprisingly simple. “Swabs are a huge bottleneck,” ProPublica’s Lydia DePillis said in a new interview with Slate. “This production should have happened right out of the gate, and instead there was a hope and a prayer that vaccines would make this all sort of unnecessary. We now know how that played out.” A slow regulatory approval process for companies who make rapid tests is also contributing to the shortage in the U.S., per ProPublica, which is clashing with a rising demand for rapid tests as schools and offices attempt to safely re-open.
In response to the frustrating shortage, the White House announced on December 21 that it would purchase 500 million test kits and distribute them to Americans for free—a plan that is likely to go into effect in mid-January, according to a new report from the Washington Post published this week.
Getting one of the free COVID-19 tests will (hopefully) be far simpler than visiting every CVS and Walgreens within a 50 mile radius hoping to find rapid tests in stock. The Biden Administration’s plan involves simply requesting a rapid test from a website and having it sent to you free of charge, per the Post. To pull it off, the U.S. Postal Service is reportedly negotiating with its major labor unions to keep the supplemental holiday workforce on a little longer, the Post reported.
Getting tested for COVID-19 after you’ve been exposed remains an important part of stopping the spread of the virus. But even if you do manage to get your hands on a COVID-19 test, there’s evidence that rapid antigen tests may not be as effective at detecting the omicron variant.
“In following the FDA’s long-standing rapid test recommendations, if a person tests negative with an antigen test but is suspected of having COVID-19, such as experiencing symptoms or have a high likelihood of infection due to exposure, follow-up molecular testing is important for determining a COVID-19 infection,” according to the most recent testing guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration. “If a person tests positive with an antigen test, they should self-isolate and seek follow-up care with a health care provider to determine the next steps.”