Some COVID tests in short supply as Michigan's demand for testing surges

Public demand for COVID-19 testing has surged along with case counts in Michigan, straining the supply of some kinds of tests and the nerves of the workers who administer them. 

Supplies of the tests that can take 24 to 48 hours to process are plentiful, but rapid tests are in short supply and aren't available everywhere, health care providers said Friday.  And locations that have enough tests might not have the capacity to meet the demand for testing.

"There’s not a limit in testing supplies. There’s a limit on rapid testing supplies, and there are instances where that’s critical," said Sarah Britton, vice president for laboratory services at Beaumont Health, Michigan's largest health system with eight Metro Detroit hospitals.  

"If we have a patient that’s coming in that we’re going to be admitting, we need to know where to put them — we can't put a COVID patient in with a patient that doesn't have COVID," she said. "We also test prior to some of our different procedures. And If they come into Emergency and they're symptomatic, we test them."

There has been an increased demand for at-home COVID-19 tests, and pharmacy chains report they are putting limits on how many kits can be bought.

Britton said the supply of rapid tests has always been limited, based on the number of tests produced and allocated by various manufacturers. As a result, the Southfield-based health system has developed algorithms to determine who gets a rapid test, she added. 

"There is adequate testing available in the state, but we are aware there is an increased demand recently due to the surge in cases, identification of the omicron variant in the state, and Michiganders getting tested before the holidays," said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michgian Department of Health and Human Services.

The supply has been challenged by a surge in demand for testing across Michigan and the rest of the country. The increase is in part due to high infection rates but also in the run-up to the holidays with people wanting to be tested prior to family gatherings or travel. 

Wait times at about 4 p.m. Thursday at Henry Ford Health System's 13 urgent care and walk in clinics ranged from less than half an hour in Bloomfield Hills and Novi to longer than four hours at their clinics in Fraser and Woodhaven, according to the health system's website.

"Wait times tend to be longer this time of year as more patients have colds, flu and other ailments," Henry Ford Health spokeswoman Dana Jay said, adding the health system is not experiencing any shortage of tests. "COVID does play a role as well. We encourage patients to reserve a place in line when available and take advantage of virtual visits which include on-demand video visits."

Beaumont's 28 urgent care centers broke their one-day record with nearly 3,000 visits on Wednesday, said Scott Hughes, spokesman for the clinics. Only one or two patients at a time are allowed in the waiting room. People wait in their cars for an average of 60 to 90 minutes for a call saying it's their turn to come inside, Hughes said.

The Beaumont urgent care clinics have an adequate supply of rapid COVID-19 tests, he said, but still there are limits on the number of people they can test.

"It’s not a supply issue with us. It’s just not having the resources to turn around as many tests as people need," Hughes explained. "If capacity is reached at a clinic we’ll refer them to another clinic or have to test them the next day."  

At home COVID tests are another option, Beaumont's Britton said. A variety of at-home testing kits can be purchased at pharmacies, but not all of them are rapid tests, she noted.

Some kits require the customer to take a sample and then send it to a laboratory for testing, a process that can take a couple of days. 

CVS pharmacies carry five brands of at-home COVID-19 testing kits, the company said in a statement. To ensure "equitable access," customers are limited to no more than six kits.  

"Due to a recent surge in demand, and to retain community-based access to tests in our stores, there may be temporary out-of-stocks for these products on," the company said in a statement. 

"We continue to offer access to onsite rapid testing, as well as lab-based testing, with results generally available in 1-2 days, although during times of peak demand, results may be delayed based on lab performance."

Walgreens said it's "seeing unprecedented demand for testing services" and has put a four kit limit on purchases of its over-the-counter home testing kits.

The availability of appointments for in-store testing fluctuates daily and is limited in many parts of the country, the company said.

At Rite Aid, the company says it is working to get tests stocked on store shelves and online as quickly as they come in. For those unable to secure an at-home test, the pharmacy also offers drive-through testing.

People wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 in New York on Dec. 16, 2021. Some Michigan health systems also have reported lines for having COVID tests done at urgent care centers.

Michigan is expecting an influx of tests after the Biden administration announced earlier this week that it would provide half a billion over-the-counter tests for people who want them, Sutfin said. But the Department of Health and Human Services doesn't have any details yet, she said.

The state already has distributed nearly 4.6 million rapid antigen tests to its partner this year. More than 2.6 million of the tests went to schools or for school-based and sports-based testing, according to the state health department. Almost 554,000 tests were distributed to the state Department of Corrections, while over 912,000 tests went to long term care facilities.

Michigan is not the only state with demand much higher than supply as the holidays approach. The Associated Press reported that nearly everywhere, at-home tests are sold out or unavailable. Testing sites are also struggling to keep up with demand — in Atlanta, police had to shut down a testing site after traffic backed up more than half a mile; in New York City, lines at testing centers regularly wrap around the block. 

Experts say even a negative test can't ensure total safety. While experts told the Associated Press that smaller groups of vaccinated people may be able to gather safely if they wear masks, it's best for those most likely to get severely sick to stay home this year. Gatherings are best kept small. They should be outside if possible or with open windows to improve air flow.