Families scramble for at-home COVID tests. Here’s how they’re doing it


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Where South Floridians once frantically sought Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, now they are after a new hot commodity: at-home COVID tests.

Online and in stores, many major retailers like CVS and Walgreens are sold out of the popular at-home rapid tests. Medical supply vendors will fill only large quantities, and the wait is six to eight weeks.

Workers in need of regular screening for employment and parents desperate to show a school a negative result are scrambling to find the tests, which return results in minutes.

Susan Goldberg of Pembroke Pines drove Wednesday to three Walgreen’s and two CVS stores in Broward in a search of a take-home rapid test to clear the way for her daughter to return to elementary school. The young girl had been sent home for having a runny nose.

“I need to show a negative result, but the tests have become really hard to find,” Goldberg said.

Issues with supply and demand started with the delta surge, grew worse when schools reopened and employers required testing, and intensified when vaccine-hesitant people needed proof of negative tests for certain activities.

The demand came right as one of the main manufacturers of the rapid tests cut back on supply after virus cases in the U.S. plummeted last spring.

A spokeswoman for Abbott Laboratories, one of the leading producers of rapid tests, said the company is ramping up production again, but it could be weeks before but adequate supplies hit the shelves.

“We are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to scale up,” said Aly Morici, director of public affairs for Abbott Labs. “It will take time though. There are millions of tests out there, and for now we are working with retailers to make sure they are getting to where they need them.”

In the meantime, here are how some South Florida residents are getting their hands on a test.

Stalking stores

Some are finding out what days and times the trucks arrive and then staking them out.

“We get them in the morning, and by the afternoon they are gone,” said a pharmacist at the Walgreens across from Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

Kristy Kennedy of Plantation stocked up on the tests as soon as she saw them available. She ordered 15 of the two-pack boxes of the Binax Now from Amazon two weeks ago, when the online retailer still had them.

“That was when the Northeast schools hadn’t started yet,” Kennedy said. “I already have taken one test myself, and my daughter has taken one. She’s in a pre-K and had a fever over the weekend so I tested her before I took her to the urgent care.” She tested negative.

Kennedy said her pediatrician won’t see children in person who have COVID-like symptoms. “That’s why I ordered so many tests,” she said. “My husband just got back from a business trip and he has a cold so he will probably take one too.”

While rapid tests have lower accuracy than laboratory-based PCR tests, the 15 minutes of wait for a home rapid test compared to 36 or 48 hours for PCR could mean the difference between an infectious person staying home and quarantining or spreading the virus to others for a few days before learning of a positive result.

Paying at-home services

With schools fully open again, some parents are spending hundreds of dollars out of pocket to test their young children for COVID. Frustrated when trying to find the tests in stores, they are paying a “convenience fee” to having companies come to their homes to give them fast results.

“The testing companies are charging as much as $150,” said Stacey Katz, director of Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El’s Early Childhood Program, which requires a negative test for a sick child to return to preschool. “Parents are paying it because if they have to go get a PCR test that could take three days, and that’s three days parents are out of work.”

Katz said that while the Department of Health has dedicated three test sites for K-12 students in Broward, preschool age is excluded. Those sites also take time to get results according to the website: “Patients will receive test results in several days via text messaging.”

Testing at school

In Broward County public schools, parents can consent to allow a school nurse to test their student on-site at no cost with the Cue Rapid Test, which takes about 20 minutes to get results. Cue’s test is molecular and provides results in more line with PCR tests, which are the most reliable.

While the California company that makes Cue tests is expanding quickly, shortages already have surfaced in some areas of the country. The Florida Department of Health in Broward provides the tests to the school district and said supply is not an issue at this time.

Although state and local governments have scaled back on their COVID testing programs for the general public, some sites do still offer rapid tests. In Broward County, one site that remains open for rapid tests is at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which charges $74 for the test. In Palm Beach County, two locations operated by the Department of Health offer rapid tests at no cost — one in Belle Glade and the other in Palm Beach Gardens.

Waiting for more tests

Two weeks ago, the Biden administration announced a national COVID plan for the federal government to buy 280 million rapid tests and partner with retailers to sell the tests at cost. Some of those will be available in Florida, but the timetable is unclear. With the supply chain inconsistent, some retailers are placing limits on how many at-home tests customers can buy.

“In order to serve our customers’ OTC testing needs, and due to high demand, we’ve introduced product limits of six on cvs.com and four at CVS Pharmacy for the Abbott BinaxNOW, Ellume and Quidel tests,” a company spokeswoman said. “We’re continuing to work with our suppliers to meet customer demand.”

Abbott spokeswoman Morici said the company will distribute tests as quickly as possible. Despite falling case numbers and rising vaccination rates, she said, “ It’s important to get a rapid test and quarantine if needed. We don’t want to go back to where we were over the summer.”

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