By Brad Brooks and Maria Caspani
(Reuters) - Long lines snake around entire city blocks as Americans scramble to get tested for COVID-19. At-home testing kits fly off the shelves at pharmacies and drug stores. Demand that surged before the holidays has yet to subside in the new year.
As the Omicron variant pushed infections to record levels and the Biden administration unveiled plans to double testing capacity in schools, people across the country voiced frustration on Wednesday with the paucity of tests.
Asa Wooten, a 25-year-old Drug Emporium pharmacy technician in Lubbock, Texas, said people have been arriving non-stop, seeking tests.
"About every fourth person walking into the store is trying to find a kit," she said. "Within the first hour of being open today I had 10 people come up here and ask me about kits, and we have people calling all the time."
Like all other pharmacies and retailers across the west Texas city, the Drug Emporium has not had any testing kits on shelves for over two weeks, Wooten said.
The last shipment the store received sold out in 20 minutes.
Testing shortages and delays are having a ripple effect on the lives of many Americans, including students and teachers whose ability to be in the classroom hinges on testing availability.
President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday announced new measures to keep classes open, including doubling testing capacity in schools with 10 million more tests.
The announcement is part of Biden's bid to make testing more widely available and follows an announcement in December that 500 million rapid tests would be available free to all Americans in January.
Critics have accused Biden of not focusing enough on testing in the fight to control surging Omicron cases and hospitalizations, amid growing reports of acute shortages of test kits around the country.
PIVOTING FROM VACCINATIONS
The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new infections reported, accounting for one in every three infections reported worldwide, according to a Reuters tally.
On Monday, the country shattered global records when it reported 1.35 million cases in a single day, according to a Reuters tally.
Skippack Pharmacy in Schwenksville, near Philadelphia, has pivoted from vaccinations to testing to meet a surge in demand that started just before Christmas.
"That's when we realized that we needed to expand to be able to do this and also keep our staff members safe," owner Mayank Amin said in a phone interview from the parking lot of a baseball field where the independent pharmacy has now set up a testing center.
While still administering COVID-19 vaccines and booking test appointments, Amin said staff also field hundreds of calls daily from residents wanting to buy at-home COVID-19 testing kits that are in short supply.
In Star City, Arkansas, people flock to Doctor's Orders Pharmacy from nearby counties that have run out of testing supplies, said pharmacist Shannon Raney.
The family-owned local business has been able to cope with rising demand by sharing supplies with its two other locations in the nearby area. "Right now we have the in-facility testing and we are out of the at-home test kits but our other store has some so we could go get some if we needed to," she said.
Due in part to increased demand, some labs have said that tests are taking longer to process.
Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest U.S. commercial laboratory companies, said it is doing close to double the number of COVID-19 tests it was performing in the third quarter of last year and it is taking an average of two to three days to return results. Early in December, the company said most test recipients were getting results in under 24 hours.
Staffing has been an issue at some labs.
"Laboratory scientists are getting sick, like everyone else," said Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), representing 150 state and local public health laboratories.
Lab testing is heavily dependent on staffing, from the collection and transportation of samples to the analysis and reporting of results.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Mike Erman in New York, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker in Chicago. Editing by Donna Bryson and Howard Goller)