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A makeshift sign warns customers of "No COVID Test Available" at this Safeway in Green Valley.

As the omicron variant continues to drive up new coronavirus infections across the country, another surge in demand for COVID-19 testing has swelled up with it.

Across the country, COVID tests have become increasingly hard to keep on store shelves, with long lines often forming where they are available.

Since July 2020, nearly 2.5 million COVID tests have been performed in Pima County — 150,000 of which occurred during the last weeks of December, when the rate of new infections in the county more than doubled, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“We are obviously in a stark upswing of our epi curve at the current time,” Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, said during a virtual press briefing Wednesday.

To mitigate the spread, Cullen said the availability of tests is critical. But recently, the county has been facing the same supply issues with rapid tests that are shaping up across the nation.

“In terms of at-home tests, we do have multiple reports that these are increasingly difficult to get over-the-counter through pharmacies, individual supermarkets or other shops,” Cullen said, indicative of what’s happening across Southern Arizona.

Prices rise

On the rare occasion those seeking a rapid COVID test are able to find one, they might be facing another challenge: higher prices.

Prices for the popular BinaxNOW test kits, made by Abbott Laboratories, are on the rise at top retailers like Walmart and Kroger after an agreement with the White House to sell the kits at-cost expired mid-December.

Since September, consumers have been able to buy the tests, which are sold as a set of two, at about a 35% discount from retail prices.

Walmart stores held the price of Abbott’s BinaxNOW tests at about $14 through the holidays, but on Tuesday increased that price to $19.88. At Kroger (Fry’s locally) stores, the test kits are retailing for $23.99.

Higher prices may make it even more of a struggle for people to get tested — something President Joe Biden’s administration has vowed to fix during this winter surge.

In a move to make testing more available, Biden announced in December a free testing initiative to send 500 million rapid COVID-19 tests to Americans who request them. Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was finalizing contracts for the tests, and was expecting the first shipment from manufacturers soon.

Though Psaki did not say exactly when the free at-home tests would be made available, she said the website to request the tests would be up and running later this month.

Biden also announced in December that private insurers will begin reimbursing for at-home tests beginning this month, so hang on to your receipts.

According to the IRS, at-home COVID tests and personal protective equipment such as masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are also eligible medical expenses that can be paid for or reimbursed under a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA).

Getting a test

Need a COVID test? Here’s what you should know.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting tested for COVID-19 if you:

• Have symptoms (including but not limited to fever or chills, cough, difficulty breathing, sore throat or a new loss of taste or smell)

• Have been exposed or suspect you’ve been exposed to COVID-19

• Are traveling soon

• Are screening for your workplace, school or other congregate setting

• Are asked to get tested by your doctor or public health official

Types of viral tests

There are two main types of COVID-19 tests publicly available today: laboratory tests and rapid tests.

Laboratory tests, which include PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, require laboratory services that look for COVID-19 nucleic acid. Results from these tests are not rapid and are typically available between one and three days after you take it.

These tests provide reliable results for people with or without COVID-19 symptoms and are sufficient for international travel.

Rapid tests, which include antigen tests, can typically be performed at home and have a fast turnaround — results are usually available in 15-30 minutes.

These tests look for COVID-19 antigens, or small pieces of protein, in your respiratory tract.

These tests are not sufficient for international travel, and may require a follow-up test as results are less reliable for asymptomatic individuals.

Finding a COVID test

You can find a COVID testing site near you at findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov, or simply by Googling “COVID testing near me.”

If you’re looking to purchase an at-home rapid test at a retail location, avoid the runaround by calling individual stores ahead of time or checking availability online. Note that some locations limit the quantity of tests individuals can purchase at one time.

After you test

If you were given or received an at-home self-test kit by by any organization or purchased individually, you can report your results to the health department at bit.ly/ReportMyTest or by calling 520-724-7147.

After receiving results, follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on isolation and quarantine, if applicable, and stay in touch with your healthcare provider.

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