A student enters the COVID-19 testing site at the University of Maine at Farmington’s Dearborn Gymnasium on Feb. 24, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Many Mainers will have to wait longer to get COVID-19 test results as the state prioritizes outbreak testing with another peak in cases prompting rising interest in testing and drive-up stations reopening in major cities.

Maine has seen testing demand increase sharply in recent weeks after it dropped off in the early summer. The number of daily tests doubled since mid-July to a September high of just under 5,400 on one day last week. Those totals within the last few days, however, are less than half the mark Maine was seeing during an April peak.

In the last two weeks, Maine’s transmission rate went from the lowest in New England to the highest. The more contagious delta variant has brought outbreaks back to nursing homes and other health care facilities that saw cases plummet after early vaccine campaigns in late 2020 and early 2021.

Many providers said they were seeing high volumes of testing but were generally able to keep up with demand and not experiencing supply issues. But turnaround times vary depending on where testing is done, Maine Center for Disease Control Director Nirav Shah told reporters on Wednesday. That could complicate the state’s efforts to combat the virus as cases climb.

The Maine CDC has been prioritizing testing for health care facilities and turning test results around in 24 hours, Shah said. For individual testing, the time frame may vary depending on the clinic or pharmacy where you get tested. Pharmacies that send tests out of state, for example, have produced results within 48 hours to more than three days, which he said “starts to limit the utility” of the test. The state lab has more than 2,400 positive cases it needs to review.

“Candidly, our lab has been swamped,” Shah said.

Maine is not struggling widely with testing access. Brewer-based Northern Light Health said on Wednesday it would restart large-scale testing sites in Portland and Bangor. But there are isolated issues as at-home tests are selling out in Aroostook and Washington counties because people need tests to cross the Canadian border. Two hospitals have stopped testing travelers.

Northern Light has had no difficulties accessing testing, but Dr. James Jarvis, who helps lead the system’s COVID-19 response, said at a Wednesday briefing that those who are looking to get travel clearance are struggling to get results on tight deadlines. A spokesperson said the system has seen “record” numbers of testing and has been able to keep up with demand.

The state’s swab-and-send sites, which are often operated in partnership with local providers, are processed at a lab in Augusta. Bigger providers, like MaineHealth, have their own in-house testing services, while others rely on out of state labs to process their tests.

St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston is seeing about 60 to 100 tests a day, said spokesperson Stephen Costello, compared with the 30 to 50 it saw in July and August. While the hospital had only two people of the 187 hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, the increase may be a sign of more, sicker patients, Costello said.

Augusta-based MaineGeneral Health has seen between 77 and 139 tests on average daily within the last month, according to spokesperson Joy McKenna, who said the demand has not yet challenged testing capacity.

The increase has led to long delays in being able to get tested in some cases, said Steve Michaud, the president of the Maine Hospital Association. In one instance, a person had to wait two hours in line to get a test, but he cautioned that such situations were rare and anecdotal.

“I was hoping that issue would be in the rearview mirror, but I guess not,” he said.