Martha Kulikowski, team leader of molecular virology at Northern Light Laboratory, is one of four who has been trained to operate the Panther Fusion machine, which tests specimens for COVID-19. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

As COVID-19 testing demand surges across Penobscot County amid the rapid spread of the delta variant, residents are finding it harder to book appointments for virus tests and seeing longer wait times for results, especially if they are not symptomatic.

More than 13,000 COVID-19 tests were done in Penobscot County in the two weeks leading up to Thursday, a rate that is 15 percent higher than the rest of Maine, according to Maine Center for Disease Control data. About nine percent of the Penobscot tests were positive, among the highest for any county in the state.

Tests administered in Penobscot County have spiked to more than triple what the county saw in late July and early August. While demand for testing has risen statewide, only Kennebec and Franklin counties are seeing as many tests per capita as Penobscot County is.

As Penobscot County faces more than 100 new coronavirus cases a day and Bangor continues to be one of the centers of transmission statewide, health care providers in the area have prioritized producing faster results for those showing symptoms or limited who they are testing.

Testing around Bangor has been “significantly higher” than in the rest of the state, said Branagon Dow, Associate Vice President for Northern Light Laboratory, which is located on the Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center campus in Bangor. The lab processes coronavirus tests from across the Northern Light Health system, which is spread throughout Maine.

Some of the tests within the Northern Light system go to the state’s lab in Augusta. This week, the system began sending tests to ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City, Utah, due to escalating demand for testing.

Sending tests away to ARUP can lead to longer wait times for results, Dow said, from 48 hours to four days depending on various factors, compared to turnaround times of 18-24 hours on tests analyzed in-house. For those who need to know urgently if they’re infected, staff try to keep their samples within the laboratory.

The lab has an ostensible capacity of processing 800 tests a day, though Dow said the recent surge had required staff to go into overdrive: it pushed out 1,500 test results on a recent day.

Between 200 and 300 tests a day are coming from Northern Light’s testing site near Bangor International Airport, which reopened earlier this month due to the rise in new cases from the delta variant.

The lab processed about 5,000 test samples a week at the peak of last winter’s surge, Dow said. But the number has skyrocketed to 7,000 in recent weeks. The rapid spread of the delta variant and school reopenings, which have led to a number of outbreaks, have both played a role in increasing testing demand, Dow said.

Another of the most significant testing sites in town, Penobscot Community Health Care, is now only providing testing to patients who come in to see a provider, along with its own employees, spokesperson Kate Carlisle said. That policy does not apply to the organization’s sites in Belfast, Jackman and Winterport.

The center announced last week that it would no longer allow people to receive tests for travel purposes.  

That prioritization will continue until PCHC reopens its central testing location at 6 Telcom Drive by mid-October, Carlisle said, which closed mid-summer. It is currently providing testing across its various practices.

Reopening the central site will likely increase capacity, Carlisle said, though that is contingent on the future availability of testing supplies. PCHC is seeing a shortage of rapid antigen tests, a phenomenon that is occurring nationwide.

“Nobody in Maine has enough,” Carlisle said.

In another sign of how hard it can be to schedule a rapid antigen test, the nearest Walgreens store to Bangor offering a rapid antigen test as of Friday afternoon was nearly two hours away in Damariscotta. The pharmacy chain has been a significant testing location for much of the pandemic.

 

As turnaround time increases due to high volume, it is important to follow health guidelines at testing sites on activities while awaiting results, Dow said. Most recommend that people getting tested should quarantine as they await results.

Dow praised her staff, saying that they had put in long hours and hard work to get test results returned quickly.

“This is probably the biggest, most important thing I will deal with in my career,” Dow said. “Some days are very challenging but, most of the time, also very inspiring.”