A member of the Salt Lake County Health Department COVID-19 testing staff performs a test on Gary Mackelprang outside the Salt Lake County Health Department Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Salt Lake City. Credit: Rick Bowmer / AP

As the omicron variant sends U.S. COVID-19 case numbers soaring to new records and drugstores and walk-in clinics clamor for test kits, suppliers have been struggling with their own mounting problems: infected workers, delayed government authorizations for new tests and the pressure of panic buying and hoarding have left these companies scrambling.

Vault Health, a telehealth company that now sells tests, has found itself shuffling test samples across the country, as  sick lab workers who usually processes its at-home PCR test stay home. In New Jersey, one of the labs Vault regularly contracts with had more than 40 percent of its workforce out with Covid recently, said Jason Feldman, the company’s chief executive officer. Vault had to route tests from the Northeast to the Midwest, where there are fewer Covid cases. That combined with the volume of tests has led to a delay in processing, with test results taking 36 hours or more instead of the promised 24 hours.

Suppliers have also been caught off guard by uncertain demand beginning the delta wave last summer followed by the sheer speed of omicron’s onslaught. Some either scaled back or stopped production of COVID-19 tests altogether as the virus waned and public health guidance suggested vaccinated people no longer needed to take tests. Leading test-maker Abbott Laboratories shuttered one of its factories, scaled back production at another and  destroyed test card components that the company decided were likely to expire before they would ever be needed. Other smaller companies decided to wind down their COVID-19 testing business altogether, pulling out of contracts to return to the production jobs they had prior to the pandemic.

“Less manufacturing and fewer distributors means more pressure on existing test makers,” said Feldman. “But even if there were enough tests available, everyone is hoarding rapid tests.”

All this comes amid the Biden administration’s pledge to make more than 500 million tests available to Americans for free. Officials said this week that more than 200 million rapid COVID tests are now available a month, up from around 50 million in September. Last fall, the administration said it would invest more than $3 billion in an effort to expand rapid virus testing. But it has not yet finalized the contracts for those 500 million rapid tests and it remains unclear how such contracts could be quickly filled.

“There’s no such thing as 500 million tests available anywhere,” said Feldman.

Even companies that planned for an omicron-like event have been caught short, calling for some radical — and costly— measures to keep the flow going. Intrivo, maker of the popular On/Go at home rapid test, said that it decided not to slow down production in the days before the delta variant, anticipating another wave. But supply chain issues caused by COVID-19 have recently forced the company to contract private jets to shuttle its tests around the country.“This was the only thing available to move our tests quickly,” said CEO Ron Gutman. “When you have regular channels of transportation coming into constraints, you need to be very, very creative. I don’t fly private, but my tests do.”

This week, the company announced a partnership with the delivery upstart Gopuff to make on-demand tests available to consumers in 30 minutes.

Some companies say scaling up to meet demand is impossible when the goal post keeps moving as case numbers explode. Right now, the U.S. is reporting more than 500,000 cases a day on average, a more than 200% increase from two weeks ago.

Some supplies that might have been available in the U.S. are winding up in Europe, where more than 45 rapid antigen tests have been approved. In the U.S., only about a dozen have gotten a greenlight.

Ro, the telehealth company best-known for selling erectile dysfunction medications online, inked a deal nearly a year ago to sell tests made by Gauss Surgical. Months later, the test still hadn’t been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (The testing business has since been spun off after Gauss Surgical was acquired by another company). In November, Ro finally got its hands on a small stock of Quidel tests. Eventually, it was able to gain a more steady flow of tests from Intrivo. With those added supplies, the company best known for selling generic Viagra is now one of the more reliable places to find a test.

“Testing has not been front and center,” said ​​Mara Aspinall, a professor at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions and a board member of OraSure Technologies Inc. “We thought vaccination would be enough to end the pandemic,” said Aspinall, who has tracked testing supply issues.  “This challenge existed before omicron.”

Kristen V Brown, The Associated Press