CLEVELAND, Ohio — Demand for at-home COVID-19 tests is climbing in Northeast Ohio, as more venues and events require a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination for admission.
The increased demand has brought concerns of possible shortages of the rapid at-home tests, said Dr. Christine Schmotzer, vice chair of system pathology operations at University Hospitals.
Tests have sold out online and at pharmacies across the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in September that the temporary shortage of rapid tests could lead to more demand for lab-based testing.
Schmotzer said medical experts aren’t concerned about testing availability for people who have COVID-19 symptoms and need them for medical evaluation or medical procedures at a hospital.
“What has led to kind of this burden on the system is an increased number of places requiring either vaccination or a negative test to go to an event or for some travel,” Schmotzer said. “So that’s the group that might be a little bit more at-risk by the potential decreases in availability of the rapid tests.”
Most of the at-home tests are antigen tests and are not as accurate compared to the PCR tests. Schmotzer said the antigen tests need more of a viral load to detect whether someone is positive. She noted an antigen test is most reliable when people are showing symptoms of COVID-19. A PCR test, though, can detect a positive result at a lower viral load.
Schmotzer emphasized the importance of getting a good nasal swab and following the instructions on the test kit in a previous story with cleveland.com. Also, it’s best to test 3 to 7 days after a COVID exposure or within the first few days after the onset of symptoms for best accuracy.
The delta variant swept through the nation during the late summer, causing an increased number of hospitalizations and deaths. And though data shows case rates are decreasing, thousands of cases are still coming daily in Ohio.
In addition to the pharmacies, folks can also pick up tests for free at branches in the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Cleveland Public Library systems — as long as they’re in stock.
The Ohio Department of Health has been providing free BinaxNow at-home tests to libraries, local health departments, schools and universities and other community partners, Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman Alicia Shoults wrote in an email.
Shoults said the state originally bought 2 million tests, and last week the controlling board approved the purchase of an additional 1 million tests, with an option to buy 400,000 at-home tests per month through June 2022.
The tests have been flying off the shelves at libraries, and it’s important people call ahead to make sure tests are available, said Rob Rua, a spokesman for Cuyahoga County Public Library. Rua said 11 branches in the library system are distributing the at-home tests through their drive-through windows where book service is typically done, and the goal is to soon implement curbside service for branches that don’t have a drive-through window.
He said some people have needed multiple kits, as they may have multiple children and parents may need to be tested as well due to potential exposure. Rua said as of Wednesday, the library system had distributed nearly 26,000 at-home tests.
Rua said the initial demand was quiet. “And then within the past month or so, it’s just been huge.”
Rua said the library initially would receive shipments of 2,000 at-home tests in the spring from the Ohio Department of Health, but this week the library received 16,000 tests.
Cleveland Public Library is experiencing similar high demand as people come downtown to pick up tests at the main library’s drive-through window, said Steve Wohl, the library system’s lending manager.
Before the delta variant’s surge, Wohl said the library was distributing 25-50 tests per week. But the week of Aug. 23, the library started seeing an uptick and handed out about 200 tests. Wohl said the number of tests provided “has been growing exponentially from there.”
He said demand has been from Cleveland Metropolitan School District parents and students, as well as from people attending weddings, concerts and sporting events.
The at-home tests are increasingly needed, particularly for people who need a result relatively quickly. President Joe Biden’s administration invoked the Defense Production Act in September to make 280 million rapid tests available, according to Kaiser Health News.
The administration also completed a deal with Walmart, Amazon and Kroger for the retailers to sell tests for “up to 35 percent less” than current prices for three months. People on Medicaid would have the at-home tests fully covered, Biden said.
BinaxNow at-home tests can be purchased at pharmacies such as CVS or Walgreens for $23.99. Still, tests like Ellume remain relatively expensive, particularly for families that would presumably need multiple tests. Ellume’s testing kit costs $38.99, so a family of four not on Medicaid would pay approximately $156.
Other testing options are still available, though, including at pharmacies like CVS.
Akron Children’s Hospital announced in a news release Wednesday that it’s starting drive-thru testing on its Akron campus for children, regardless of whether they’re patients or showing symptoms. Young adults up to age 26 still in the care of Akron Children’s Hospital can also receive a test, according to the release. Appointments are required and can be scheduled through MyChart.
Mercy Health’s Lorain branch said in a news release Tuesday that it has walk-in clinics at six locations for people seeking a COVID-19 test. The clinics are open seven days a week, and providers at the locations also offer “in-person and virtual visits to safely screen, isolate, and care for patients who may only be experiencing mild symptoms,” according to the release.
Shaker Heights Fire Department has also provided COVID-19 testing throughout the pandemic, partnering with MetroHealth. Nurses from the hospital come weekly to the fire station on Chagrin Boulevard to provide PCR tests at the drive-through clinic. Appointments are required, and people can make them through MetroHealth.
Sweeney said the fire station hasn’t seen a shortage of tests recently, and he said there are other places to go too if people look hard enough.
“I think if somebody is resourceful enough and they’re willing to look around a little bit, I think you can find stuff,” Sweeney said. “I know that there’s been some media attention and there’s been talk about tests are hard to find right now, but I think if you kind of dig in a little bit, you can get things taken care of. That’s been my most recent experience is with people getting stuff from the library, people making appointments at CVS.”