AUGUSTA, Maine — The popularity of at-home COVID-19 tests is making them harder to find as Mainers rely on them more in the face of record cases and waits for more involved testing at pharmacies and medical providers.
The antigen tests that can be purchased at pharmacies — such as the Abbott BinaxNOW kit — are less effective than the PCR tests given by medical professionals. But they are good for distinguishing between a cold and the coronavirus and the federal government is placing more emphasis on them as a way for people to screen themselves around winter gatherings.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced that Americans can get the cost of at-home tests reimbursed by health insurers, though it requires legwork by the consumer. Some states, including New Hampshire, Missouri, Colorado and others have either partnered with the federal government or stood up their own at-home test delivery programs in order to encourage testing. The United Kingdom is mailing tests to its citizens upon request.
Maine does not look likely to mount a similar effort, which would likely require the state to develop its own program, as a trial created by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is set to end in weeks. The emphasis on at-home tests comes as testing has not kept pace with cases here, driven in part by pharmacy staffing problems.
“Home delivery [of COVID-19 tests]?,” Gov. Janet Mills said after being asked about launching such a program at a news conference on Wednesday. “It’s not like delivering pizza.”
The Democratic governor is open to new ways of expanding testing with federal help, but Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said a delivery system would be challenging due to the rural nature of the state and fluctuating at-home test supplies.
Mills defended the state’s efforts on Wednesday by pointing to its school pool-testing program, which 53 percent of schools had signed up to participate in as of September. She said the state is willing to help if people have mobility issues and are unable to get a test on their own.
In New Hampshire, which partnered with the NIH and CDC, 800,000 free tests were snapped up within a day. The program discouraged hoarding by requiring people to complete a test before ordering another. Anyone needing to send samples to the state lab could only do so through UPS. Missouri created a delivery system through a vendor and promised to send them within two days. People did not have to be symptomatic to order a test.
The tests are a useful tool for people who want to check themselves before a major event, said John Gale, a University of Southern Maine researcher and the president of the National Rural Health Association. But he noted they are most effective when people have symptoms and are merely a snapshot in time.
While testing regularly could help a person monitor themselves for potential illness, that would be expensive and should not be used as a substitute for other pandemic precautions, like wearing masks indoors and getting vaccinated, he said.
“If people want to use them, they should be part of an overall strategy,” Gale said.
While you might have to wait days to schedule an in-person PCR test, an at-home test can be found now if you are willing to shop around.
In Augusta on Thursday, a reporter visited a CVS Pharmacy, Walmart and Sam’s Club and all were out of stock. But the two Walgreens stores in the capital carried several QuickVue and FlowFlex tests. One kept tests behind the counter and was limiting them to one per customer.
You might have an even harder time at small pharmacies. The Augusta-based Community Pharmacy chain stopped carrying at-home tests because it got too expensive to compete with chains, said owner Joe Bruno, who still gets requests and points people to the chains.
“They’re still very popular,” he said.