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Hunt for scarce COVID tests leaves Maryland residents scrambling amid surge

Melanie Thankappan headed to the Pratt Library in Federal Hill for the branch’s 10 a.m. opening, hoping to score a box of COVID-19 rapid tests.

A lot of people were there, and the boxes of test kits already were distributed. She and some other hopefuls waited a few minutes to make sure there weren’t more inside.

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“I feel like if I walk away, then they will come out with more boxes,” said Thankappan, a second grade teacher in Baltimore, who is tested regularly at school but wanted more certainty and timeliness in results for gatherings. “I don’t want to hoard tests, but I want to have enough so that I make sure I’m safe and everyone around me is safe.”

Susan Rome of Baltimore, left, chats with Tracy Cotay, a library associate at the Orleans branch of the Pratt Library, as she distributes at-home COVID-19 testing kits. Rome said she tried three other libraries before getting lucky enough to pick up a test at the Orleans branch.
Susan Rome of Baltimore, left, chats with Tracy Cotay, a library associate at the Orleans branch of the Pratt Library, as she distributes at-home COVID-19 testing kits. Rome said she tried three other libraries before getting lucky enough to pick up a test at the Orleans branch. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

With Christmas and New Year’s coming soon, and the highly transmissible coronavirus variant omicron now the dominant strain circulating, it seems everyone is eager to stick a swab up their nose.

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After weeks of steady crowds, long lines have formed around testing sites in Maryland. Some people report being unable to buy rapid tests or being turned away at testing sites, even with appointments.

Help may be on the way, with more access planned at state testing facilities and more free rapid test kits for distribution, courtesy of state and federal governments. Both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and President Joe Biden announced emergency measures Tuesday to increase staffing and hours at testing sites and the availability of at-home tests.

For now, people are waiting.

The Pratt libraries had around 4,800 tests, and almost all were handed out within the first 30 minutes, said Meghan McCorkell, a library system spokeswoman. The system later tweeted that people began lining up outside several hours before opening and some locations handed out tests early to get people out of the bitter cold.

“The Health Department gave us the tests, and we hope to give away more as they become available,” she said in an email.

Some people in line said they already had been to other library branches, drugstores and other sites without luck finding the test kits that have been in low supply throughout the pandemic.

At the Baltimore City Health Department’s only COVID-19 testing site operating Tuesday, across the street from the Village Baptist Church in West Baltimore, a line wrapped around the block.

Jacqui Olson, 28, of Highlandtown, was near the front of the line late Tuesday morning, after having waited over an hour. By then, the site was only offering PCR tests, rather than rapid tests.

She was seeking a test before seeing family in Florida for the holidays. It was her third time getting tested in the city during the pandemic, and the longest she’d ever had to wait, she said. Her efforts to save time by taking a rapid test were unsuccessful.

”We went to three or four different pharmacies, and they were all sold out,” Olson said. “So, that wasn’t really an option, unfortunately.”

Antoine McKinney, 44, of Canton, waits in line across the street from the Village Baptist Church in West Baltimore. He was hoping for a PCR test before traveling to St. Louis for the holidays.
Antoine McKinney, 44, of Canton, waits in line across the street from the Village Baptist Church in West Baltimore. He was hoping for a PCR test before traveling to St. Louis for the holidays. (Christine Condon / Baltimore Sun)

For Antoine McKinney, 44, of Canton, it was his second day trying to get a COVID-19 test. Monday, he stopped by the testing site at State Center, which recently moved from the Baltimore Convention Center, but the line was so long — “wrapped clear around the block” — that he left and came back later. Then officials said they couldn’t do any more testing for the day, he said.

McKinney hopes to get results back in time for a holiday trip home to St. Louis, even though he’s been vaccinated and boosted.

“My grandparents remain one of the main reasons for going home. And they have vaccinations, but they don’t have boosters,” he said. “I don’t want to go home and make everybody sick.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the wait at the COVID-19 testing site at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia was “impossible,” said Connor Ferguson, general manager of FirstCall Urgent Care and Centennial Medical Group, which run the site.

“The longest I’ve heard is four hours,” Ferguson said. “Last year, there were waits as long as six or seven hours, so we’ve actually improved.”

The Howard County executive’s office and local law enforcement have been helping to manage the queues of cars forming outside the site, sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m., Ferguson said.

“I quite honestly never thought we’d ever see volumes like we saw in December of 2020 ever again and we’re about 50% higher than that,” Ferguson said of the company’s 10 sites, from the Howard County Fairgrounds and BWI Marshall Airport to FedEx Field.

The demand is so high that the company’s website crashes often, he said.

The company offers both rapid and PCR tests at its locations, Ferguson said. Take-home tests are not being provided.

Drive-thru sites, which offer patients the opportunity to be tested from their cars, without needing to stand among infected individuals in lines or packed waiting rooms, are so more difficult to staff, especially given weather and traffic conditions, he said.

Paula Willey, branch manager of the Orleans Street branch of the Pratt Library, distributes one of the last COVID-19 testing kits that were given out at her branch this morning.
Paula Willey, branch manager of the Orleans Street branch of the Pratt Library, distributes one of the last COVID-19 testing kits that were given out at her branch this morning. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Federal officials said the squeeze should ease soon. Biden announced Tuesday that the government would make half a billion at-home rapid tests available to be shipped to consumers who sign up through a website beginning in January. The pandemic plan also includes more testing sites, in addition to 20,000 free testing sites across the country, with the first opening in New York City before Christmas.

Biden already had called on private insurers to reimburse consumers for rapid tests they buy starting next year, in addition to covering the PCR tests done in a lab.

Maryland has joined much of the country in seeing a surge in cases, increasingly tied to the more contagious omicron variant that the CDC said Monday is now the dominant strain in the U.S. State health officials said Tuesday that the variant is now 40% of the specimens taken from infected residents for testing.

Maryland reported a record 6,218 new cases Tuesday. The positivity rate from testing rose above 11.6%, more than twice the international threshold of 5% showing adequate levels of testing.

Hogan, in a virtual address because he is isolating with COVID-19, announced Tuesday that the state would expand hours and days of operations at some state-run testing sites in part by mobilizing the Maryland National Guard to assist.

They include operations in Annapolis and Prince George’s County, as well as at State Center in Baltimore. The Vaccine Equity Task Force plans to step up testing and vaccinations in vulnerable communities.

Hogan also said he’d put $50 million of new COVID-19 preparedness spending toward testing, treatments and vaccinations at hospitals and nursing homes, with millions more primarily going increase staffing at hospitals coping with rising numbers of largely unvaccinated coronavirus patients.

The state already pledged a half-million rapid tests to local health departments and to BWI for distribution. Hogan said the state is working to increase those weekly shipments. The state will give $30 million to schools to buy more tests and supplies.

Hogan urged people to get vaccinated and boosted. He said about 91% of adults in the state had gotten at least one dose of vaccine. Marylanders should also “use caution and common sense,” he said.

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“If you travel get a test,” he said. “If you are feeling sick, stay home and get tested.”

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Tests will continue to be an integral part of a layered approach to protecting the community from COVID-19, said Matthew Frieman, a coronavirus expert and professor in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s department of microbiology and immunology.

With the holidays coming, he plans to test himself ahead of visiting family for Christmas.

The family will use rapid tests Wednesday ahead of traveling Thursday. If anyone is positive, they all will go for more sensitive PCR tests at a lab and hope results come back in time.

Before the Enoch Pratt Central Library opened at 10 a.m., the line of people who wanted to get free COVID-19 test kits stretched around the building to Park Avenue, according to a security guard. All the kits were given out by 10:20 a.m.
Before the Enoch Pratt Central Library opened at 10 a.m., the line of people who wanted to get free COVID-19 test kits stretched around the building to Park Avenue, according to a security guard. All the kits were given out by 10:20 a.m. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Like other experts, he said the best way to use rapid tests was to test everyone once ahead of a gathering and twice over several days for those exposed or with symptoms.

“Probably no one has enough tests to do it that way for every gathering, though,” he said. “If you have them, they are good to give you a sense of security that you are not infected at that moment.”

Those who can’t access a test before the holidays still can consider going to gatherings, Frieman said, but he suggested extra precautions, including vaccinations, boosters, extra hand washes, masks and well-ventilated rooms.

“It is important to be together for our emotional well being, and people in public health recognize that,” he said. “Christmas is a time when people want to be together, especially two years into the pandemic.”

Baltimore Sun reporters reporters Emily Opilo and Christine Condon contributed to this article.

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