A sign advertising curbside COVID-19 tests is seen outside John's store in Fort Kent on March 1, 2021. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Demand for COVID-19 tests is spiking in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties as they cement themselves as Maine’s virus hot spots.

Penobscot County residents took nearly 8,400 COVID-19 tests in the last two weeks, a nearly 80 percent increase from the number of tests in the two weeks prior, according to data released by the Maine Center for Disease Control on Thursday. Tests in Piscataquis County went up by about 45 percent during that time, with residents taking 557 tests in the county that now has Maine’s highest rate of new infections.

The new tests come as Penobscot and Piscataquis counties have become a hotspot for the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19. Penobscot County recorded 90 new confirmed or probable cases from Wednesday alone, which was the highest number that day for any county in Maine and the highest number Penobscot has seen in a single day since January.

As for the increase in testing over the past two weeks, tests in Penobscot rose at the fourth highest pace in the state, after Aroostook, where testing rose by 119 percent from the previous two-weeks period; Washington, where testing was 115 percent higher; and Franklin, which saw an 80 percent increase in tests. 

More than 60,000 COVID-19 tests were given in Maine over the last two weeks, a 31 percent increase compared to the two weeks before that. 

Northern Light Health, which offers tests across the Bangor area, has seen increasing demand for COVID-19 tests primarily due to people having symptoms of the virus or being exposed to someone who contracted it, spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said Thursday. 

Others have tried to get tested so they are eligible to travel, Spruce said. Vaccinated travelers to Canada must have tested negative for the virus within three days of crossing the border. 

At Walgreens, which offers rapid testing at pharmacies across the Bangor area, spots are filling up much more rapidly than in previous months. On Wednesday, the closest Walgreens with available appointments for the rest of the week was in Pittsfield, almost 40 miles away.

A media spokesperson for Walgreens did not respond to a request for comment on testing increases.

Penobscot County’s rate of new infections in the past two weeks was second only to neighboring Piscataquis County. Both counties have vaccination rates that are lower than the statewide inoculation rate, with Piscataquis County’s vaccination rate higher than only Somerset County.

In another sign of the accelerating spread of the virus in those two counties, about 6 percent of virus tests in Penobscot County (529 total) came back positive over the past two weeks, double the positivity rate in the two weeks prior. The statewide positivity rate across Maine was about 4 percent during that time.

The highest positivity rate was in Piscataquis County, where almost 10 percent of the 557 tests over the last two weeks came back positive.