COVID-19 testing sites create long lines as at-home kits become scarce

As COVID-19 cases sharply rise across the country, long lines are beginning to form at testing sites in various cities. 

One video posted on Twitter by Rob Swanda showed New Yorkers standing to get tested on Monday. The footage posted appears to show two lines for testing in Times Square. 

Jordan Thomas, another local New Yorker told the Associated Press he was forced to take nearly fours hours off work to get a test in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

"Not everyone can take three hours off work to get tested, but it feels like it’s the only thing we have the power to do," said Thomas.

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Floridians hoping to get COVID-19 tests also waited in long lines, sometimes for hours, on Sunday, the day after many had gathered with friends and relatives for Christmas. In Tampa, the West Tampa Neighborhood Service Center had a line wrapped around the building for much of Sunday, as residents waited to get COVID-19 tests.

According to the CDC, the 7-day moving average of positive cases is above 176,000. That’s an uptick from late October where the average hovered around 67,000.

Meanwhile, Americans have been searching drugstores for scarce home tests. In New York City, drugstores posted signs alerting customers that they sold out of tests. In Atlanta, drugstores ran out of home tests, and police shut down testing sites as traffic backed up a half-mile or more. 

Manufacturers are working to increase supplies. Abbott said it’s seeing "unprecedented demand" for its popular BinaxNOW tests and that it plans to expand production to 70 million tests in January, up from more than 50 million this month. The company said it can further boost production in coming months.

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In the meantime, Walgreens said it’s limiting people to four boxes per purchase in stores and online. CVS said it’s limiting people to six kits per purchase.

In New York City, officials planned to hand out rapid home tests to people facing long waits at testing sites to help ease demand. But the city is having trouble securing the tests as well.

President Joe Biden announced that the federal government would for the first time start mailing 500 million free rapid tests directly to Americans in January. Details have not yet been released, but officials say people will be able to use a new website to order their tests, which will be mailed to them at no charge.

The government will use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests. New federal testing sites will also be set up, starting this week in New York.

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The changes come after public health experts for months urged U.S. officials to make testing more accessible, pointing to countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, which have distributed billions of tests to the public and recommended people test themselves twice a week.

Experts say the latest efforts still will not be enough for all Americans to test at that rate. The U.S. would need 2.3 billion tests per month for everyone 12 and older to do that, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

The availability of tests varies around the country.

At a city-run children’s day camp in Fort Collins, Colorado, boxes of rapid tests were available for free this week. Staffers told parents to take as many as they needed.

Still, demand for testing is only set to increase after the holidays, when people will want to know if their travels and gatherings resulted in infections, noted Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

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And high demand will likely to persist far into 2022 as people look to resume the activities they gave up during the pandemic, Aspinall said.

"The pandemic fatigue has moved into, ‘I want to do what I want, when I want.’ And tests provide that knowledge and power," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.