LEWISTON — With cold and flu season here, sick employees are staying home from work — sometimes for days — while awaiting COVID-19 test results.

In the Lewiston-Auburn area, chamber of commerce officials and local legislators say the lack of timely and affordable testing in the area is impacting businesses. Employees most likely suffering from a cold, or even seasonal allergies, are missing multiple days of work to make sure they don’t have the coronavirus, which business officials argue is unsustainable heading into the winter months.

In a joint statement, the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Lewiston-Auburn legislative delegation said this week that the region needs its own “swab and send” site, where tests are sent directly to the state’s lab in Augusta and results are typically known within 48 hours.

“With cold and flu symptoms overlapping with COVID-19 symptoms, symptomatic employees must remain home,” the statement said. “Timely negative test results can help employees return to work sooner, and keep operations running smoothly.”

According to Shanna Cox, chamber president, Androscoggin County has four testing sites listed on the state’s website, but none are “swab and send,” which ensure free testing and remain the most consistent and accessible, she said.

“If you’re an employer, you’re stuck telling an employee you need a negative test before they come back, knowing it could be a (weeklong) journey, and asking them to likely accrue medical expenses, with it likely just being a head cold or the flu,” she said.

Jen Hogan, president and CEO of Community Credit Union, said the company has seen a wide range of test result times for employees — anywhere from 24 hours to seven days.

Throughout the pandemic, they’ve had three employees test positive for COVID-19, which resulted in 21 employees being quarantined so far. She said waiting multiple days for results has caused staff “to feel overwhelmed with worry” about potentially exposing their families, friends, or co-workers, and has also resulted in several short-term staffing shortages that led to the temporary closure of locations or limited services to credit union members.

“This has been really hard for our organization and my heart goes out to all of my employees and other businesses that are doing their best to safely navigate this pandemic,” she said.

Cox said she recently missed four days of work awaiting her own test after she became sick, which coincided with the chamber’s decision, through its business advocacy committee, to take a formal position.

“I thought, we can’t do this with everybody,” she said. “This is not a reasonable approach to making it through the winter.”

More than 60 businesses signed on to the chamber’s statement.

However, Cox said, the statement issued Wednesday makes it clear the local business community isn’t against testing or the state’s public health guidelines. It states the leadership of the Maine CDC and other agencies, “along with the sacrifice of business owners and Maine residents have kept our positive case counts low, our test positivity rate low, and our people safe. The efforts and sacrifices are to be commended.”

But, it states, more needs to be done.

Every state legislator representing Lewiston and Auburn, as well as the mayors of both cities, signed on to the effort.

A separate joint statement from the elected officials states, “We have been hearing concerns and complaints from our constituents, business leaders, workers and families alike, about the lack of testing without symptoms and the timeliness of results. These complaints are backed up by our own personal experiences and those of our families. We recognize the difficulty and the nuance involved with expanding Swab and Send sites. We cannot let the solutions be delayed any longer.”

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said Friday that throughout the pandemic, the Mills administration has prioritized expanded COVID-19 testing capacity and access for Maine residents, and that the state has among the best testing rates in the country.

Long said the state’s lab this week passed the 100,000 mark for COVID-19 test samples processed since March, but added that medical providers or groups that choose to send samples to other labs, like the Androscoggin County sites, “may have to wait longer for results.”

“As the pandemic continues, we remain committed to making the best use of available resources to meet the needs of all Maine people, and we continue to welcome perspectives shared by groups such as Lewiston-Auburn’s Chamber of Commerce and legislative delegation,” he said.

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