Almost two years after the start of the pandemic, Minnesota still does not have enough COVID-19 tests

If you’re looking to secure an appointment for the COVID-19 test in the Twin Cities today, good luck.

While cases in Minnesota increase with the new, more transmissible strain of omicron, appointments at community testing sites across the state are mostly booked. Ditto local pharmacies and health care providers. Walk-in wait times are unpredictable, and rapid in-home tests are so rare they almost look like a luxury item.

The Minneapolis Vaccine Hunter Facebook page, a group that formed to help people find vaccines at the start of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and now has more than 57,000 members, has grown into a page of hunt for tests. Group members indicate where they may have been tested and how long they have had to wait.

Earlier this week, the state announced extensions to the state’s testing capacity. In an MPR interview, Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged the testing shortage, but defended the state’s testing infrastructure.

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“We have a robust system. I think the good news now is people are using it, they understand that testing is important. The bad news is that supply chains are still strained nationwide, ”Walz said.

But some Minnnesotans aren’t necessarily so optimistic about the state’s testing options just yet. In the Twin Cities metropolitan area, many travelers returning home from the holidays, parents trying to assess whether their children are contagious in school and sick Minnesotans express frustration at the shortage of tests.

Rare trials

As official COVID-19 cases count near their fall 2020 peak in Minnesota, COVID-19 tests have become harder to find. For much of that week, it has been difficult to secure same-day or next-day COVID-19 appointments at state testing sites or pharmacies, especially in the metro Twin area. Cities. Queues for walk-in appointments at test sites can be long. Earlier this week at the Brooklyn Park community test site, the queue stretched outside in cold weather, and some walk-ins are said to have waited up to two hours.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport website temporarily closed to walk-in early in the week due to the crowds. The volume of home test kits available through Vault Health was discounted over the busy New Years weekend due to high demand, according to the company. More recently the tests have had DoorDash delivery issues. On its website, Vault warns that due to high demand, results – typically available within 24 to 48 hours of arriving at the lab – are being delayed.

Rapid home tests, which currently cost Minnesotans who can afford them between around $ 7 and $ 39 each, are usually out of stock online. Big drugstore chains like CVS and Walgreens have stopped reporting whether they are in stock in stores, sending Minnesotans out on the hunt to check inventory in person.

While state test sites and home kits are free for everyone, the options at driving sites and pharmacies are fewer for those Minnesotans who are less Internet-savvy and those who do not have a computer. transport or access to insurance.

Hard to compare

Testing shortages aren’t limited to Minnesota at this time. As the omicron strain spreads across the country, many major cities are reporting high demand for testing.

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“SF COVID testing in Meltdown, as lines span multiple blocks, results take days,” SFist reported.

“New year, same long lines for COVID-19 testing,” echoed KSAT San Antonio.

“Long lines at COVID mass test sites keep people waiting for hours,” Boston Channel 10 reported.

How is Minnesota doing in relation to these places?

“It’s really hard to be able to answer that question,” said Gigi Gronvall, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We don’t have visibility into how states are doing. Maybe the CDC has a holistic view, maybe the White House has a vision. Granted, businesses know this, but putting it all together is really tough. “

Almost two years after the start of the pandemic, it’s not only the ability to test that remains a challenge, but also things as seemingly simple as counting tests. States report numbers of tests, but not all use the same definitions, an issue that has hampered many efforts to compare state-to-state pandemic data. Plus, they don’t tend to capture the home antigen tests that people buy over the counter.

A Johns Hopkins tracker that compiles state data places Minnesota at 638 tests per 100,000 people this week, near the mid-state. Rhode Island had the most tests by this metric, at 1,918 tests per 100,000 people, and New York, Illinois, Vermont and Massachusetts were all above 1,000 tests per 100,000 people.

The data isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have, Gronvall said, and it indicates Minnesota appears to be doing as well as similar states.

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Data challenges aside, it is difficult to gauge state testing programs against each other because they are all different.

Studies show that testing capacity is increasing, but “it’s still not clear what the distribution is,” Gronvall said.

Demand may not be evenly distributed among communities in the United States, which could explain why it is often easier to get an appointment for a COVID-19 test in many more rural communities in Minnesota than in the metropolitan area.

“States take different approaches to how they distribute tests, which could help determine whether or not they meet people adequately where they are,” said Lindsey Dawson, associate director of the HIV policy and director of LGBTQ health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which monitors COVID-19 testing. While some states distribute tests to counties, others distribute them to community health centers or, like Minnesota, make tests available at community testing sites and by mail.

“Even in places that do a great job of creating a number of different pathways, we can still see delays,” she said, noting that people were tweeting about the long lines at New York, where tests are available. at many street corners. “So it’s clear that the United States as a whole and individual localities have not mastered the ability to make testing widely accessible and affordable at this point in the pandemic.”

Too many tests?

Demand has jumped in recent weeks across the country. Part of that could be related to a change in message from the government and the media about the role of COVID-19 testing, Dawson said.

“Federal messaging, [particularly for home testing] was really focused on whether or not you had been exposed to COVID-19 or had symptoms, ”she said. Recently, he has switched to using testing as a risk mitigation measure, urging testing before gatherings.

This week, Dr Benjamin Mazer argued in an Atlantic opinion piece that asymptomatic people are taking too many COVID-19 tests amid shortages, which is increasing demand. Using a traffic adage (“You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.”), He urged Americans to temper their use of testing when it is not necessary.

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“Yes, the system failed us: Inadequate public investment in the country’s test infrastructure worsened the congestion. But we can also help mitigate it – and pave the way for those who need their results most – by avoiding the road as much as possible, ”he wrote.

All of this demand, coupled with supply chain issues and a reliance on the market to dictate test production, has hampered test availability, Gronvall said.

Last year, as COVID-19 declined, for example, Abbott Labs shut down one of Binax’s rapid test manufacturing sites, citing weak demand. Then the delta hit, school started, and COVID-19 cases started to rise again. More recently, demand has jumped with the omicron.

Expansion capacity

The state and federal government are working to make testing more available.

Last month, the Biden administration announced it would make 50 million rapid tests available to Americans, starting this month, and is expected to announce a plan to have private insurance reimburse people for the tests. fast at home.

On Tuesday, Governor Tim Walz announced the opening of three additional test sites, in Anoka, North Branch and Cottage Grove, as well as increased testing capacity at the St. Paul site. He also announced that the state would distribute free home tests to schools and communities “disproportionately affected by COVID-19”.

“MDH works daily with our testing partners across the state to monitor the supply. Like elsewhere in the country, Minnesota is experiencing unprecedented demand and is working to ensure that every Minnesota that needs a test has access to it, ”MDH spokeswoman Erin McHenry said in a statement sent. by e-mail.

Other countries, including Germany and the UK, have done a better job of making COVID-19 testing available to residents, Gronvall said.

Gronvall said she believes the United States may need to focus more on a long-term solution for the pandemic: vaccines. While omicron appears to be better at evading vaccines, early evidence suggests that those who are vaccinated and boosted are less likely to contract COVID-19 and less likely to become seriously ill from it.

“We wouldn’t face the same problems with omicron if more people were vaccinated,” she said. “I love the tests. The tests are fantastic. We need to know how serious the epidemic is… but I think vaccination is the end of the game. ”

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