Nationwide shortage means no COVID test kit giveaways expected in Philly before New Year’s

City residents wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits in Philadelphia

City residents wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits in Philadelphia, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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Philadelphia officials don’t expect to give away any more at-home COVID-19 test kits anytime soon amid a nationwide shortage and growing concerns about new variants of the virus interrupting the holiday season.

“The fact of the matter is there are just none available right now,” said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the city’s Health Department. “As much as I’d like to promise that we’ll do this again in the future, it’s really dependent upon the state of us being able to buy those tests.”

With omicron spreading right as families planned to gather for the holidays, Philadelphians wiped out the city’s supply of giveaway rapid tests earlier this week. Lines of people in need of tests wrapped around city blocks before supplies ran out and the program was shut down early.

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In total, the city handed out 24,000 tests between Saturday and the final community giveaway on Wednesday. But ultimately the city exhausted its store of kits before Thursday’s giveaway scheduled for Waterview Recreation Center in the city’s East Germantown neighborhood.

For several weeks, the health department says that it has been trying to obtain new tests, to no avail.

“We’ve had out purchases to try to buy more of these [tests] so we can have more on hand and be able to give more out,” Garrow said.

He said the current demand was “unprecedented” even after more than a year of pandemic worry.

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The city has seen a rise in interest at its testing sites for all kinds of tests — PCR, antigen, and at-home test kits. Rapid tests are particularly in demand as people make plans to travel.

National pharmacy chains have already put a cap on how many at-home tests customers can buy. Some pharmacies and health care offices don’t let people schedule testing unless they’ve already shown signs of symptoms. Those that are able to get through the scheduling system are given appointment slots many days in advance — often well past the day they wish to gather with loved ones.

In a statement, a Rite Aid spokesperson said the chain has “seen increasingly high demand for rapid testing.” It is instead encouraging those seeking the sought-after testing kits and rapid tests to instead utilize their drive-thru COVID-19 PCR test, with results in 2-5 days.

CVS Pharmacy said that it has added a limit of six test kits per purchase both in store and digitally. Due to the surge in demand, and to retain community-based access to tests in stores, the chain said there may be temporary out-of-stocks for at-home tests at this time. It will continue to conduct on-site testing — with a warning that results may be delayed because of the high level of demand.

And while the White House has a plan to distribute 500 million free at-home COVID tests across the nation, the website to request these tests isn’t expected to be active until after the winter holidays are over.

“This is definitely a market problem,” said Garrow. “We are actively looking everywhere we can, to try to identify sites where we can purchase more tests and calling around.”

The situation feels not unlike the rush seen at the start of the pandemic, when government agencies were reaching out even overseas to try to find test kits and to try to purchase them.

“A lot of that has to do with — the market wasn’t prepared for the type of surge that we’re seeing. They didn’t ramp up production and now we’re all sort of scrambling right now for — to find these rapid at-home tests,” Garrow continued.”

The Health Department reported more than 13,000 COVID-19 test results received on Dec. 22, the single highest number of test results received in one day thus far in the pandemic. The department said that more than 60,000 test results have been received per week for each of the last three weeks.

During the most recent virtual COVID-19 briefing, Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole recommended that people avoid holiday gatherings due to the sharp rise in new COVID-19 cases. Since her announcement, the health department says that the number of new cases identified per day has only increased.

The repeat of yet another surge, and the high demand from the public to get tested, has had a massive toll on the city’s health workers through the holiday season. Even as Christmas approached, the health department continued to host pop-up COVID testing, hosting one in Philly’s East Germantown neighborhood, and another in Eastwick on Christmas Eve.

“It’s been difficult to see us having to go through another rise in cases again,” Garrow said. “At this point, things are not going well. In the city, and the region, and the country.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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