People in Fort Kent live just minutes from the Canadian border, separated only by the St. John River. But in order to enter Canada, they must travel 100 miles in the opposite direction and back again.
That’s because Aroostook, Maine’s largest county and where most of its residents live near the Canadian border, has only one town — Houlton — that offers COVID-19 testing sites to travelers.
Canada reopened its borders on Aug. 9 to vaccinated Americans, but on the condition that they receive a negative COVID-19 result within 72 hours of testing. The test cannot be a rapid antigen, one of the most commonly available tests in the state, so most people are left trying to find a polymerase chain reaction or PCR test, which is less readily available and can take more than 72 hours to get a result.
And with the recent rise of COVID-19 cases across Maine, most hospitals have stopped giving out travel-related PCR tests altogether. This has effectively blocked most Mainers who live in border communities from getting easy access to an acceptable COVID-19 test to take what once were routine short trips across the border.
Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent offered travel testing at one time, but with climbing COVID-19 rates in Aroostook County, the hospital had to put its travel testing on an indefinite hiatus.
“A couple of weeks ago, we paused our travel testing so we could prioritize testing for symptomatic patients and close contact tracing during this time,” Monica Jerkins, a spokesperson for NMMC, said. “Most pharmacies are not offering PCR tests and to my knowledge, all hospitals have paused offering travel testing.”
Katahdin Valley Health Center in Houlton is one of the few accessible locations for Aroostook residents who wish to travel. But the testing is done only on certain days, and depending on people’s insurance coverage, they may be stuck paying an additional expense for their travels.
The branches in Houlton and Patten will test travelers if they schedule with the health center, according to Michelle LeFay, corporate compliance officer for KVHC. She did not elaborate on the fees or how many requests are being made..
Dr. James Jarvis, a doctor with the Northern Light Health in Bangor, said that travel testing was available at their facilities, but that extra fees would likely have to be paid to receive results within the 72-hour window.
“At Northern Light pharmacies, you may be able to obtain a test for travel in a more timely fashion — it does have a cost to it,” he said. “And we know that there are other retail pharmacies and other agencies that, for a fee, are providing services where they can do a more rapid turnaround time.”
The Northern Light AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, Northern Light Health’s closest facility to the Canadian border, does not offer travel testing.
The lack of available testing in Maine may be reflected in the decline in the number of travelers crossing into Canada. During the first week the Canadian border had reopened, more than 9,700 non-Canadians crossed through Maine to access its Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, according to the Canadian Border Service Agency.
In the most recent two weeks, the number of weekly travelers has dropped to about 5,500. Both of those numbers are a far cry from the usual traffic seen crossing the Maine land border, which averaged weekly from 25,000 to 30,000 non-Canadians entering Canada.
While PCR testing is the most commonly available testing method to get across the border, it is not the only acceptable one. Several other, more obscure types of non-antigen tests are also permitted, such as Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests, or NAAT. These tests detect the genetic material, or nucleic acid, of COVID-19, and a negative result means the person is free to cross. A NAAT test result can be delivered the day of the test.
Abbott Laboratories, the Maine-based company that produces the BinaxNOW antigen test used by many testing locations across the country, has a rapid-test version of the NAAT test, known as ID NOW. But along the entirety of Maine’s border area, only one place offers ID NOW testing for travel purposes — Eastport Health Care in the Washington County town of Calais, right across the border from St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
Melissa Mallock-Farren, the director of quality improvement at Eastport Health, said the ID NOW test is offered only two days a week. The health center can offer between 30 and 45 tests per day, depending on how much staff is available.
“We are booked solid for weeks out already,” she said. “We’re doing it on half-days, but once in a while we can do a full day [of testing].”
Though testing is only done on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, Mallock-Farren said there is a plan in the works to extend to a third day.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has announced plans to expand the number of Walgreens locations which include PCR testing for purposes of travel testing, which will provide some relief to border towns in Aroostook. Walgreens in Presque Isle will begin doing PCR testing on Oct. 7, while the Madawaska location will begin on Oct. 14.
Reporter David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.