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Trying to get a COVID test? For many, it's been a frustrating struggle.

Someone using a rapid covid test
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Coronavirus tests are hard to find this holiday season. Experts say it’s a supply and demand issue with a lot of contributing factors.

With the holidays in full swing and the omicron surge of COVID-19 looming, lots of people are out looking for coronavirus tests before they gather or travel. But for many, it’s been a mad scramble to find one.

Experts say it’s the result of supply and demand issues with lots of contributing factors.

Emily Martin is an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She said that for the past few months, public health resources were mostly aimed at getting people vaccinated, and the demand for testing hadn’t been very high. Now that demand surging, the testing infrastructure is cracking.

“Part of the challenge is that you've got everybody sort of wanting a test at the same time, and that testing demand has been lower for the last few months until just recently,” Martin said. “So some of the resources to support it had sort of atrophied for a little while.”

Martin said re-directing those resources isn’t something that happens instantly. And she said a growing shortage of frontline health care workers to administer tests, and lab personnel to process them, isn’t helping.

“Even if you can get the supply chain really moving, you’re going to run into a personnel crunch,” she said. “And that’s going to be a long-term struggle. I think this is where you see people start to push for making at-home tests readily available.”

But Martin said that unlike some countries, the U.S. hasn’t focused on making at-home tests as cheap and plentiful. And that will take a while to correct.

“This is really hard to make that investment in the middle of a crunch,” she said. “It’s really something that it takes weeks to build it up ahead of time.”

Nina Ignaczak’s experience trying to find at-home COVID tests reflects that reality. Ignaczak said she wanted her extended family to test before gathering for Christmas, but found shelves were empty at suburban Detroit drugstores. She said a friend then told her to try ordering online for pick-up, which she did.

“I ordered eight tests, enough to cover my extended family,” Ignaczak said. But when I got there they would only give me four. They said they were out of stock.”

Ignaczak did eventually get all the tests she needed after several trips, but others haven’t been so lucky.

I'm frustrated that testing wasn't kind of more widely pushed, I guess, by authorities before the last few days,” she said. “I think omicron, plus holidays, made it top of mind for people. I hadn't thought about testing before this week, and by the time I realized that 'hey, maybe testing was a good idea,' it was already really a challenge to get the test.”

President Joe Biden’s administration is working on beefing up the testing infrastructure and plans to send out hundreds of millions of free at-home tests to Americans, but not until January. In the meantime, Michigan’s late delta wave that left many hospitals stretched to the limit has barely begun to recede, and omicron is already circulating in the state.

Epidemiologist Emily Martin said the immediate future looks rough.

“I don't think that our delta wave played out in a way that's going to give us any sort of added protection against the omicron wave,” she said. “I think that especially when you look at the fact that having a booster, having a three-dose vaccine series, is the best protection, and those numbers across Michigan aren't very high. And so that definitely leaves us susceptible to having an omicron wave, even though by some measures we haven't even really finished our delta wave. And so we are potentially looking at this kind of double-decker, with one wave following right on top of another.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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