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It should come as little surprise that testing remains an important part of Maine and the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, even with the widespread availability and continued uptake of vaccines. Very smart people have been saying for a very long time this would be the case.
And yet, we’ve seen recently how the supply chain and laboratory capacity have struggled to keep up with the demand for tests and the volume of tests conducted amid the delta variant surge.
In early September, the principal at Calais Elementary School essentially had to set up her own clinic (with help from the state) in order to test students and others who may have been exposed to the virus related to a summer day camp. There wasn’t anywhere else in Washington County where a large number of people could get tested for free on short notice.
It was an inspiring example of dedication from Principal Sue Carter. But it shouldn’t have been necessary.
“I am not a medical professional,” Carter said at the time “None of this should be my responsibility.”
Also in early September, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention had to increase staff to help work through a large backlog for reviewing and reporting positive tests.
“Access to testing remains a challenge across the country and across the state,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Sept. 7. “Testing supplies across the country and the state are strained right now.”
Testing challenges remain weeks later (not that they can be resolved overnight). A Sept. 27 BDN headline, “Many find it’s nearly impossible to get quick COVID test results in the Bangor area” certainly doesn’t generate confidence that the issues surrounding testing capacity, speed and availability have been resolved.
On Wednesday at the Maine CDC’s weekly media briefing, Shah said the amount of PCR testing, tests that are highly sensitive and generally sent to laboratories, has increased by 19 percent over the past two weeks. He also discussed the recent availability issues involving faster but potentially less accurate rapid antigen testing. While there had been a concern that this crunch could lead to Maine schools getting short changed on rapid tests, Shah said that has not happened.
“We’ve been working with the manufacturer to make sure we can secure even more of those tests,” Shah said. “And again, I don’t want to get ahead of myself yet because I want to shore up a couple things. But we’ve been working really diligently with our colleagues and other departments across the state to get more of those tests here in the state, for use not just in schools, but in places like pharmacies.”
On Thursday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services officially announced measures to expand COVID-19 testing options in the state, including pooled testing for children and staff at child care facilities and the addition of PCR testing at Walgreens across Maine. These are steps in the right direction in what needs to be a continued push to make testing readily available to people throughout Maine and the country.
Call us economically naive, but we have to think that deferring strictly to market forces for something like COVID-19 testing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a great approach. So we’re hopeful that President Joe Biden’s recent re-invocation of the Defense Production Act to bolster testing availability will actually have that intended result. But we share concerns that the testing component of his vaccine mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees could further challenge an already strained testing supply.
With winter (and more indoor activity) on the horizon, it’s clear that more needs to be done to ensure COVID-19 tests are a readily available tool in the continued pandemic — in all areas, rural and urban.
The recent testing situation, with its backlogs, delayed results, difficulty finding appointment slots, empty shelves and prioritizations in who can be tested at certain locations, has been unacceptable. It should not have gotten to this point. Federal and state officials, working with manufacturers and health care providers, should do everything they can to keep digging out of this situation and prevent it from getting to this point again.