Meghan Lynch, a laboratory assistant, prepares nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing Friday at Central Maine Medical Center’s lab in Lewiston. The hospital tests between 50 and 75 samples from patients daily. As the recent surge continues, the demand for testing is outpacing the supply and capacity to process them quickly. Some Mainers are finding they must travel further and even pay a fee to get tested in some instances. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

Public, free COVID-19 testing sites in central and western Maine are few and far between, even as positive test results awaiting review continue to pile up in Augusta.

At a media briefing earlier this week, Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah said that the demand for tests is outpacing the supply and for the third straight week, case investigators are working through a backlog of positive test results.

“I want to acknowledge that access to testing remains a challenge across the country and across the state,” Shah said. “Now this challenge — this shortage — of testing comes down to two things: supply and demand.”

Manufacturers and distributors of testing supplies are “strained” as the demand for tests has skyrocketed in recent weeks as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread throughout the country and in Maine, Shah said. Pooled testing in schools has added another layer to demand.

“And as a result of those two factors, the demand has outpaced the supply. What that means for you is that you may have to wait longer than you wish or travel farther than you want in order to get a COVID-19 test right now and, depending on the type of test you take, it may take longer than average for your results to come back.”

With large-scale, state-run “Swab and Send” testing sites mostly a thing of pandemic’s past, testing is primarily accessible through CVS and Walgreens pharmacies which, through a federal program, offer no-cost testing to the public.

But finding one of these locations is another challenge.

In Androscoggin County, there are three pharmacies each in Lewiston and Auburn that offer testing, and one each in Lisbon Falls and Livermore Falls. In Oxford County, there are just three pharmacies total in Bethel, Norway and Rumford. And in Franklin County, there’s one testing site: A Walgreens in Farmington.

And due to limited supplies, many of these sites are restricting appointments to symptomatic people or that have known exposure to someone with COVID-19. Testing for travel purposes, for instance, is not available at any of these sites, per the state’s testing website.

“More needs to be done to expand the availability of testing,” Shah, from the Maine CDC, said at the briefing, “And we are working on it both with our partners here at the state, as well as with our partners at the federal level, with manufacturers of testing, as well as with the federal government to make sure we’ve got everything we need to make testing as available as possible,” he said.

On Thursday evening, President Joe Biden announced sweeping new vaccine requirements for federal employees, health care workers and companies that employ more than 100 people. He also announced an expansion of the free testing program at 10,000 pharmacies around the country.

“We are awaiting details from the Biden administration, which will guide our next steps toward expanded testing availability,” Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said Friday.

Absent the pharmacy location sites, someone looking for a COVID test could try to get an appointment at Maine Urgent Care or B Street Health Center in Lewiston or St. Mary’s Urgent Care in Auburn, all of which are open to the public. Area hospitals’ emergency departments continue to offer testing for symptomatic patients and for the hospital’s admitted patients.

Other testing sites will typically require a referral from a primary care provider.

The nonpharmacy options, however, are not necessarily no-cost.

MaineHealth, for example, offers testing to any asymptomatic individual for any reason through its NorDx Community Testing program. A single test costs $110 and takes about 72 hours to process, according to its website.

“We are seeing increased demand for COVID testing at our Maine Urgent Care locations,” Central Maine Healthcare chief medical officer Dr. John Alexander said in an email.

“Supplies and turnaround times are dependent on our partners but we have maintained our ability to see and test patients at these locations in Topsham and Lewiston.”

Admitted patients at either of CMHC’s three hospitals — Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Bridgton Hospital and Rumford Hospital — are tested regularly with a PCR test. Those are processed on site and results are available within three to four hours, Alexander said.

Individuals tested at the emergency departments or urgent cares may have to wait three to four days.

Northern Light Mercy Hospital announced earlier this week that it would restart its drive-up testing locations in Gorham, Windham and Westbrook.

Neither CMHC nor St. Mary’s Health System, the parent organization to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, plan to open larger scale testing sites in the near future, executives from both networks said.

St. Mary’s spokesperson Steve Costello said Friday that St. Mary’s is “watching community demand closely to see if/when another site may be necessary.”

Testing volume for both PCR and rapid antigen tests has increased more than 50% in the past month in Maine, Long, from the Maine CDC, said Thursday, “demonstrating that the available supplies are being used.”

He said the demand for tests now is similar to the demand during the winter surge in cases from late December to early January of this year.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: