Three boxes of a take-home rapid antigen COVID test sit on table in Ellsworth on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A high demand for COVID testing in communities near the border with Canada has resulted in pharmacies from Calais to Madawaska selling out of take-home testing kits.

Canada reopened its border to people who have tested negative for COVID last month.

The lack of such tests is another example of the lack of testing capacity in Aroostook and Washington counties, which could be complicating efforts to slow the spread of the disease. On Wednesday, state health officials reported that six more Mainers have died and another 734 have tested positive for the disease since Saturday.

Employees at half a dozen Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies from Calais to Madawaska said Tuesday that they do not have take-home tests in stock, and have been sold out for about a week. Most said they did not know when they might get more testing kits from their suppliers, though estimates ranged from a few days to another week.

In addition to Canada reopening its border a month ago, the statewide increase in COVID cases and concerns about students returning to school for the fall have contributed to the demand for testing.

“The test requirement for travel to Canada plays a role,” Robert Long, spokesman for Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. “The increase in cases, which leads to more testing of close contacts, also contributes to increased demand. Our testing coordinator has been in touch with pharmacies and health care providers in Washington County and Aroostook County to discuss ways to add testing capacity.”

Canada does not accept test results from rapid-results antigen testing kits, which is the kind most often found in Maine pharmacies, so the increase in cases and contact tracing is most likely why pharmacies are sold out.

People looking to cross the border have to get a PCR test, the results of which have to be verified by a professional laboratory. But the number of positive cases has resulted in some hospitals not testing people for travel approval so that they can focus on treating people who are sick.

Mike Ellis, city manager for Calais, said he is “very concerned” about the lack of testing availability in Washington County.

Last week, the city helped Calais Elementary School Principal Sue Carter stage a testing clinic at the school for students and others who had participated in the Calais Parks and Recreation Department’s summer day camp program after some of those students tested positive for COVID. The Maine CDC sent 300 PCR tests to use at the clinic, and Calais Community Hospital sent three staffers to help before Carter personally drove the completed tests to the Maine CDC’s Augusta lab for processing.

The start of school was delayed for six days, and seven people tested positive for COVID, after the cases associated with the city’s rec department came to light.

“Following Canada’s decision to open the border for vaccinated Maine residents upon a negative COVID test within three days, test kits have been scarce in our area,” Ellis said. The demand for testing has created a backlog that for many people has pushed the wait for getting results to five days, which is “unacceptable,” he added.

Fred Gahagan, manager of the Walgreens store in Caribou, said Wednesday that demand for take-home testing kits has been high for the past couple of weeks, but that he hopes to get some more in soon.

“I’m hoping to get some on Friday,” Gahagan said.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....