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As omicron surges in Louisiana, COVID test supply isn't meeting demand: ‘It’s so difficult’

 COVID-19 test site at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans East. May 7, 2020. Health officials say the recent shortage of COVID-19 rapid tests is reminiscent of the early days of testing shortages in the pandemic.
Ben Depp
National Geographic
COVID-19 test site at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans East. May 7, 2020. Health officials say the recent shortage of COVID-19 rapid tests is reminiscent of the early days of testing shortages in the pandemic.

Demand for COVID-19 tests is soaring in Louisiana amid the omicron surge, leading to longer wait times, shortages of rapid tests and forcing state officials to compete with other states on the open market.

The crunch comes as the state marked record-high cases of COVID-19 just before the new year, hospitalizations continue to mount and deaths from COVID-19 in Louisiana topped 15,000 on Monday.

In a situation reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, supply isn’t meeting demand, said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the New Orleans Health Department.

And because of how transmissible omicron is, and the season’s heightened time for travel, “everyone has had some exposures,” Avegno added.

The rise in cases coincided with holiday closures – including at sites run by the National Guard in conjunction with the city and state – which made it harder to find test sites as the surge ramped up last week and over the weekend. Ochsner Health, the largest health system in the state, limited COVID-19 testing to only those who are symptomatic at its clinics and emergency rooms.

Lines are also getting longer at some state-run sites across Louisiana, said state health officer Dr. Joseph Kanter.

PCR tests, which typically take one to three days for results, are more abundant, and they’re the predominant test at nearly all city and state-run test sites and most private clinics. Each site has different times and rules around who can get tested, and private sites might charge a fee.

PCR tests can pick up the virus over the course of an infection, which is what makes them the gold standard. Rapid tests are essentially less sensitive, but they have become important because they tell you if you’re infectious right now. They’re a snapshot in time of your COVID-19 status: a positive result is reliable, but the negative result only means you’re not spreading the virus at that moment.

Avegno said PCR tests are not running out, even if the lines can sometimes be lengthy. But she said what people want are quick results.

“Rapid tests overall nationwide are in a real crunch,” she said.

They’re in such low stock in pharmacies that CVS and Walgreens won’t post availability on their websites. “Some rapids pop up in some drugstores and you know, there'll be a run on the Walgreens on Carrollton,” Avegno said.

The city was awaiting a shipment of 22,000 rapid tests early this week from the state, but Avegno was told it’s been delayed.

Kanter said that’s thanks to an extremely tight national market where states are competing against each other to acquire the tests.

“It's unfortunately very reminiscent of what we had to do earlier on in the pandemic for ventilators,” he said. “We were bidding against other states; it was crazy. That's what we're doing now for rapid tests.”

The health department has placed orders for half a million rapid tests, he said.

“Whether or not they're actually going to be delivered in the timeframe with which they've been promised is a whole other issue,” Kanter added.

To cope with the surging demand, the New Orleans Health Department is considering opening new testing sites. The city’s public schools have been ramping up testing ahead of children returning to classrooms. But for someone who thinks they might have COVID, or just wants to rule it out, a maze of options awaits.

Lee Lemond’s story is a prime example.

Lemond, who has become known on Twitter as the man behind the Louisiana Coronavirus Data account, began his search for a COVID-19 test after his extended family experienced an outbreak over Christmas.

He was lucky enough to have a friend who gave him a few at-home rapid tests — already in short supply — and his came back negative. But a few days later, he had symptoms.

Lemond drove to one New Orleans area Ochsner Health clinic and waited in line for half an hour, only to eventually discover, thanks to a sign posted on the door, that it was closed. He drove to another Ochsner clinic, which was only testing symptomatic people like Lemond.

He tested positive and isolated. On New Year’s Eve morning, he drove by a New Orleans city-run test site and took a video of the long line of cars. A few hours later, the wait had shortened and he was able to get another test to confirm he was better, and now, negative. That evening, his daughter began to feel ill, and he used one of the at-home tests from his friend to discover that his daughter was now positive for COVID-19.

After nearly two years of a pandemic where government and health officials have repeatedly stressed the need for testing, the scramble he experienced trying to take four tests in a little over a week is “really disappointing,” Lemond said.

“It's just the difficulty for us all to be running around the city, looking for tests, trying to get tests, and at the same time, probably clearly spreading COVID because it's so difficult to get a test,” he said.

The testing strain comes amid a host of other implications of the highly infectious omicron variant. Chief among them are the rising hospitalization for COVID-19 coupled with the increased staff shortages at hospitals and clinics.

“Hospitals will tell you that on any given day, they have large numbers of staff who are either out because they have COVID, or quarantining because they were exposed to COVID,” Kanter said.

Even at the hospital where Kanter frequently works, he said the staffing issues there have resulted in the hospital closing beds.

That impacts not just the ability to care for COVID-19 patients, but everyone else, he said.

Emergency rooms across the state have been swarmed with people seeking COVID-19 testing, causing state and local officials to urge anyone not in an actual health emergency to stay away.

Staffing shortages should be helped by the Centers for Disease Control’s newest guidance that has cut down the duration of isolation and quarantine.

What worries Avegno is the impact of omicron on a state that still ranks among the lowest in the nation for vaccination rates, and what another surge like the one this summer could mean for hospitals strained to the brink.

“We're just really hoping that our peak comes soon and doesn't bring with it the same peak and hospitalizations that we saw in delta,” she said. “We know that omicron is less likely to cause severe disease, but that's in vaccinated and boosted individuals, and the rest of the state, by and large, is still not sufficiently vaccinated.”

In the majority of areas outside of the greater New Orleans region, less than half of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

The top priority for the state health department is to fight complacency over the pandemic, Kanter said.

Thanks to omicron, COVID-19 is “becoming close to ubiquitous,” he said, which could give people the impression that they no longer need to take it seriously.

Even though omicron causes less severe illness, its high transmissibility means “we're still going to have a high degree of morbidity and mortality,” he said.

“You don't want to get this. You don't want your kids to get this,” he added. “And I think the challenge for all of us in the new year is to remain vigilant, even though we're exhausted, retired and we’re tired of this pandemic, we still have to get through this surge.”

To find COVID test locations in Louisiana, click here for our guide.
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Rosemary Westwood is the public reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.