Demand remains high for COVID tests after Christmas in Michigan

Even after the rush to get tested before the Christmas holiday, it still can be tricky to find any type of COVID-19 test.

Shelves in the state remain empty of at-home tests, even as pharmacy chains say they're working to try to keep up with demand. In Detroit, the hotline to schedule a COVID test was so overwhelmed in the middle of the day Monday that some struggled to even get through. Across Metro Detroit, health officials and hospital leaders say they're seeing an increased demand for tests.

"We're definitely seeing increased volumes of COVID-19 testing at our site in Sterling Heights. We're also seeing increased volumes of testing-related inbound calls to our COVID-19 Helpline," said Andrew Cox, director and health officer of the Macomb County Health Department. "We'll continue to support these efforts to help make COVID-19 testing accessible."

Lorene Webster of Detroit and her nephew, Twaun Webster, 16, of Detroit, inspect their COVID-19 test kits after receiving them Monday at the Joseph Walker Williams Recreation Center in Detroit.

Dr. Brad Uren, associate professor of emergency medicine at Michigan Medicine, said the emergency department at the University of Michigan health system has seen an increase in patients seeking testing for COVID-19 over the past several days. He thinks the large number might partly be due to pharmacies shutting down for the holidays on Friday and Saturday, limiting access to testing. The health system has not experienced any shortage or rationing of tests, according to the health system.

“We’re continuing to see a large number of COVID patients,” Uren said Monday. “Some people have quite moderate symptoms, but we’re seeing some quite sick people requiring hospitalization as well.

“During the holidays, it was difficult for a lot of people to find testing because a lot of the outpatient pharmacies and other places that have been set up for testing were closed during the holidays,” he added. “So we did have people coming in with very mild symptoms that ordinarily they wouldn’t be coming to the emergency department.”

Early studies show that omicron, the variant recently found in Michigan, may present differently in people than previous variants, with symptoms being described as more cold-like (runny nose, headache, sore throat) than in the past. It can be hard to distinguish COVID from the common cold, which means some consumers are searching for tests when they aren't sure.

In west Michigan, Spectrum Health system’s 14 hospitals also are experiencing an increase in traffic at their emergency departments, said Brian Brasser, Spectrum’s chief operating officer.

“Testing is in high demand,” said Brasser on Monday, adding that Spectrum is only testing patients who show symptoms of COVID-19. “Our constraint is in our staff and our ability to staff up. It’s going to be tough (when cases increase due to omicron).”

Chelsea Wuth, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told The News that there is "adequate testing available in the state," but officials there, too, have seen demand increase significantly. 

The state is running community pop-up testing sites around the state. It also has a website specifically available to help people connect with tests nearest to them. But that hasn't worked for everyone, and details on the 500 million COVID tests that are supposed to come from the federal government are not yet available, Wuth said.

To try to meet the demand, some facilities are maintaining extra hours. Demand has been higher because of the omicron variant, leading Detroit to keep the Joseph Walker Williams Center open for testing on both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. The center is open on those days from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and appointments are highly recommended.

Pharmacy chains are working to get in-home tests available, but especially as people are trying to navigate the omicron variant, tests regularly fly off the shelves as soon as they come in. Walgreens instituted a four-test purchase limit online and in stores, the company told The News in a statement last week, while CVS said it limits in-home tests to six per customer.

Even then, stores are having a hard time keeping them in stock. Rite Aid told The News last week that teams there were working to make sure tests are available as soon as they come in. But many customers are finding that instead, across chains and across the metro area, if they want to be tested, they need to schedule appointments and wait for results.

It's not clear what, if anything, will change after the new year. Deliveries of the rapid COVID tests from the federal government are supposed to start in January, but the page where people will be able to request them has not yet launched. The Associated Press reported last week that it's not clear how many tests people will be able to request or what kind people will get. 

President Joe Biden said last week that he planned to continue to use the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to prioritize production of products over others to maintain national security, to "make sure we're producing as many tests and as quickly as possible."

"The bottom line is it’s a lot better than it was, but we’re taking even more steps to make it easier to get tested and get tested for free," he said.

hharding@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Hayley__Harding

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kbouffardDN