More COVID-19 test appointments available, but at-home tests still tough to find

As COVID-19 caseloads and hospitalizations remain high in Maine during  the surge of the highly transmissible omicron variant, demand for testing continues to be strong, but it’s getting a little easier to find an appointment for an on-site test.

Finding an at-home test, however, can still be challenging.

On Sunday a steady stream of people showed up for testing at the Portland International Jetport and the Westbrook Fire Station. Those interviewed said they had no trouble getting an appointment at either site.

At the jetport, COVID-19 tests are available for free to both walk-ins and those with appointments. The schedule there showed a few appointments were still available on Sunday. But anywhere from 81 to 149 appointments a day were available for the coming days. That compares to a week ago, when all slots were booked for a week straight.

The jetport offers both rapid antigen tests, which are available to travelers only with results within two to four hours, and PCR tests – short for polymerase chain reaction –  whose results typically are available within 48 to 72 hours. But due to limited supplies and high testing volumes, those results could be delayed further, cautions Curative, the company providing jetport testing.

At the Westbrook Fire Station, PCR tests are available by appointment at westbrookmaine.com/685/Community-COVID-19-Resources.

Chris DeFilipp of Scarborough , who came to the jetport Sunday for a test, explained that someone in his household tested positive for COVID recently. He said he’s been isolating, masking up “and testing regularly doing mostly rapid at-home tests.” Then he learned there were PCR tests available at the Portland jetport. “We’re trying to do one a week in addition to at-home tests.”

Chris DeFilipp of Scarborough removes his mask to take a COVID-19 test at the Portland International Jetport on Sunday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

DeFilipp is especially concerned because he’s directing an upcoming production, “Waiting for Alice,” at South Portland’s Mad Horse Theatre opening Feb. 3. The small cast is following safety protocols during rehearsals, masking up and testing often.

“During the past two weeks it’s been hard to get at-home rapid tests,” he said. “I just found more yesterday. It’s getting easier. It’s also helpful to get an appointment for a PCR test. It’s helpful to know this is a resource,” DeFilipp said of the jetport testing.

Everyone in his household is fully vaccinated, but family members visited for a weekend and brought COVID-19 with them. “It’s what happens,” he said. “I got the same exposure as everyone else.” He isolated as much as he could and masked up. “I’ve tested negative the whole time.” The difference, he said, “is that I was boostered. I got boostered right before Thanksgiving. The other people who tested positive hadn’t been boostered.”

Christine Jenkinson of Portland came to the jetport with her 9-year-old-daughter to get tested for COVID-19.

Much to her relief, finding an appointment was no problem on Sunday, she said. “But the last three weeks have been an absolute nightmare. I’ve got two kids in school. With all the exposures and not being able to come back to school until you have a negative test,” it’s been tough to get tested, she said.

On Sunday morning her daughter, who is vaccinated, woke up with a sore throat. Jenkinson fretted about finding a test. “I logged on and was able to get an appointment in two hours. It’s incredible,” she said. Being able to find a test “is night and day compared to what it was a few weeks ago.”

Dan and April Caron of Cumberland said they made an appointment at the jetport for a test two to three weeks ago in order to travel internationally. On Sunday they were feeling fine. No symptoms.

“We need the test to enter our destination,” he said. “They have been super here,” his wife added. “Our daughter goes to school in Canada” and also needs testing; she received her results back promptly.

In Westbrook on Sunday, cars lined up two or three at a time at the fire station to get a PCR test by spitting saliva into a tube.

Westbrook Fire Department paramedic Wayne Devoe greeted a man in a truck, asked if he had had any liquids in the last hour, then jokingly promised: “You’re going to have the most fun you’ve had on a Sunday,” as he handed over the test package.

Susan Spescha of Westbrook talks with a firefighter at the COVID-19 testing site Sunday at the Westbrook Fire Deptartment. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Westbrook Fire Department Capt. Joe Carroll said many people are getting tested. “The demand is very high,” he said. Firefighters in Westbrook used to do tests with nasal swabs; now they are conducting saliva tests.

“The great thing about this test is the results are coming back faster than when we were doing nasal swabbing. We’re seeing results 24 in hours. We’re still telling people 24 to 36 hours.”

When Westbrook was offering nasal swab testing “we were doing 100 tests a day. Now with the saliva tests we can do a greater capacity. We’re doing about 200 tests a day. The line moves fairly fast. We have three people working at a time.”

Finding an at-home test is another matter, however.

Calls to three local pharmacies over the weekend were met with recordings that at-home tests were not available, or that store employees could not confirm availability over the phone. The pharmacies recommended customers visit their stores or order tests online.

On Tuesday the Biden administration launched a website for Americans to request free at-home COVID-19 tests.

The website, COVIDTests.gov, now includes a link for “every home in the U.S.” to access an order form run by the U.S. Postal Service. People can order four at-home tests per residential address, to be delivered by the postal service. It marks the latest step by President Biden to address criticism of low inventory and long lines for testing during the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.

The heightened interest in tests comes as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that high numbers of people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, and cases continue to mushroom.

The agency said 429 people were hospitalized throughout Maine with COVID-19 on Saturday, and of those 101 were in critical care. The Maine CDC did not update hospitalization numbers on Sunday.

Meanwhile, a growing number of Mainers are getting vaccinated and receiving booster shots.

Children ages 5-11 who are fully vaccinated now number 33,588 out of the 96,000 Maine population in that age range.

Statewide 72.36 percent of all Mainers are fully vaccinated. Out of Maine’s 1.34 million population, 544,536 people have gotten booster shots, the Maine CDC reported Saturday.


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