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Walgreens and CVS struggle against ‘unprecedented’ holiday demand for home tests amid omicron surge

Philadelphia residents wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid coronavirus test kits Monday. (Matt Rourke/AP)

With coronavirus cases spiking because of the fast-spreading omicron variant, many Americans have flooded their Walgreens and CVS stores this week for at-home tests, which have become the must-have item for millions ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The long lines forming at test centers and pharmacies nationwide are in response to news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that omicron accounted for nearly three-quarters of covid-19 cases in the past week, making it the nation’s new dominant variant.

Walgreens and CVS are struggling to keep at-home test kits on the shelves days before millions hold indoor family gatherings for Christmas. The high demand for at-home coronavirus tests such as Abbott BinaxNOW, Acon FlowFlex and Quidel Quickvue has also affected online orders, with many stores listing the over-the-counter kits as “out of stock” or only available for in-store purchase.

“As the nation experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases coinciding with the holidays, we are seeing unprecedented demand for testing services,” Alexandra Brown, a Walgreens spokeswoman, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Due to the incredible demand for at-home rapid testing, we put in effect a four item purchase limit on at-home COVID-19 testing products in our stores and digital properties in an effort to help improve inventory while we continue to work diligently with our supplier partners to best meet customer demands.”

Pandemic-weary New Yorkers said Dec. 17 they were braving more than hour-long waits to try and get tested for the coronavirus amid the new omicron variant. (Video: Reuters)

Matthew Blanchette, a CVS spokesperson, said in a statement emailed to The Post that the company is working “around the clock to provide our stores with inventory” of the five at-home kits it offers, days before Christmas.

“In the event a store experiences a temporary shortage, our teams have a process in place to rapidly replenish supply,” he said. “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 shortage of rapid tests to help identify and contain potential outbreaks comes as President Biden on Tuesday is expected to outline plans to expand testing sites across the country, distribute a half-billion free at-home tests and deploy more federal health resources to aid strained hospitals.

Biden faces tough task of rallying exhausted Americans against omicron threat

The Biden administration will start delivering a half-billion free rapid tests to homes next month, according to a White House statement previewing the president’s Tuesday speech, and health officials are launching a website where Americans can order them. New federal testing sites will also be established across the country, starting with one in New York City this week.

“I will be deploying hundreds more vaccinators and more sites to help get more booster shots in arms,” Biden tweeted. “I’ve ordered FEMA to stand up new pop-up vaccination clinics across the country where you can get a booster shot.”

The United States is averaging nearly 147,000 new confirmed infections a day, an increase of 22 percent from the previous seven-day period, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. The omicron variant accounted for 73 percent of new coronavirus cases between Dec. 12 and Saturday, according to modeled projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York has seen the most significant spike in recent cases, averaging more than 18,300 new infections a day.

More than 68,000 Americans are currently hospitalized for covid. The death rate has also slightly increased over the past seven days, as the United States is averaging more than 1,300 covid deaths a day.

Finding at-home coronavirus tests, particularly the rapid antigen tests found online and at most drugstores, has been increasingly difficult in recent months. In response to the demand, some retailers have limited the number of at-home tests people can buy, while others were warned that delivery times may be delayed.

Why at-home coronavirus tests are easy to use and hard to find

Though the Biden administration has emphasized increased testing as one of the pillars of its pandemic response, the White House has been criticized for failing to provide at-home tests at low cost. Americans are paying $25 for a pack of two tests — that is, if they can find any at a pharmacy.

The administration has also struggled to explain testing shortages to Americans. Earlier this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was criticized for her response as to why the administration has not made at-home tests free and more widely available: “Should we just send one to every American?”

With the surge in the omicron variant, people have posted photos of waiting in long lines for both in-person testing and at-home test kits, as well as empty shelves at Walgreens and CVS stores. Some have posted screenshots of the number of stores that can’t keep up with the demand.

That’s been especially evident in New York City, where people criticized the “shameful” response to the surge after not finding home tests at Walgreens or CVS. CNN’s Brian Stelter posted a photo of a CVS store in New York emphasizing that they had no home tests available.

“The website is not accurate,” the sign reads. “All covid test out of stock.”

In Chicago, many Walgreens and CVS stores had barren shelves after the run on rapid home tests, according to the Chicago Tribune. Dana Vais, system medical director for infectious-disease services at Amita Health in Illinois, told the outlet that people planning indoor family gatherings need to take a rapid, at-home test rather than a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — molecular tests that are much more sensitive and can take longer to return results.

“I would not recommend any holiday gathering without the people there having at least an antigen test,” Vais said. “If we want to get through this, we really have to make testing as easy as possible, widely available.”

Some on social media posted about how their orders for home kits had been unexpectedly canceled. Others offered tips for which stores still had them available. One California woman told KGO that she and her son had been looking for at-home tests for close to 24 hours before finding some at a Walgreens in San Jose.

“One place said online that they had it so I drove there … and they didn’t have it so then [my son] kept looking online and found this store,” she told the station.

Blanchette reiterated to The Post in the statement that the company was “committed to providing families with protection and peace of mind during the holiday season.

“We continue to offer access to lab-based testing with results available in 1-2 days or rapid COVID-19 testing at more than 4,800 CVS Pharmacy locations nationwide,” the company said.

Andrew Jeong, Lindsey Bever and Lateshia Beachum contributed to this report.

Read more:

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What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus