Need a Rapid COVID Test before New Year’s Eve? You’ll Need to Be Quick

Update: 9:25 a.m. | Boardman library branch test shipment
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Some — but not many — New Year’s revelers may have opportunities to acquire a rapid COVID-19 test before joining in the festivities.

Demand for rapid test kits in the days leading up to Christmas left pharmacy shelves bare and health districts nearly wiped out. The Youngstown City Health District has 4,000 ready to distribute for free during a giveaway planned for Dec. 29.

Beginning at 8 a.m., the first 1,000 cars to arrive at the Covelli Centre downtown can secure up to four BinaxNow COVID-19 Antigen Self Tests, says Erin Bishop, health commissioner. Once they run out, “We can’t do anything more about that,” she says.

“Ours are free and we’re trying to get them out to people who need them. But they have to understand we only have a limited amount,” Bishop says. “If we get more, we’ll do the same thing.”

Incoming traffic must enter Front Street from the Market Street bridge. No vehicles will be permitted to enter Front Street via the South Avenue bridge.

On Dec. 22, the health district distributed 3,000 tests in two hours to residents in a drive-thru fashion at Eugenia Atkinson Recreation Center. Cars were backed up onto Martin Luther King Boulevard and along Wirt Street. 

Another 2,000 tests had been delivered to churches throughout the city for residents unable to get to the drive-thru, Bishop says. Any leftover tests after Wednesday’s distribution will be taken to the churches. “But I don’t see that happening,” she adds.

Bishop has another order placed for tests and is hopeful to get them in before New Year’s Eve.

With the rise of the omicron variant, demand for tests was strong during the holiday season. Because individuals who are vaccinated and boosted can still test positive, residents wanted to test before visiting family and friends, according to Bishop.

“I know a lot of families who were doing that before they got together,” she says.

Other health districts and pharmacies are seeing similar demand.  

A shipment of 1,000 Binax tests at the end of October lasted the Columbiana County General Health District through November, says Laura Fauss, public information officer. Another 1,000 shipped at the start of December was exhausted after two weeks, followed by a second 1,000-test shipment in the middle of the month that was gone by Dec. 23, she says.

“You can see how the need has just increased,” Fauss says.

As that demand increased, the district limited tests to four per household, then further limited it to two.

Another order has been placed, and Fauss is hopeful it will arrive before New Year’s Eve, as the office continues to receive inquiries from residents, she says.

Demand in Trumbull County started picking up around Thanksgiving, says Frank Migliozzi, commissioner for Trumbull County Combined Health District. The district orders tests 1,000 at a time, which have been in “fairly high demand for schools,” Migliozzi says.

Including Warren City and the private schools, there are 24 school districts in the county using the rapid tests, he says.

“Most of our schools have requested them and have been utilizing them,” he says. “It’s been in the thousands.”

Hometown Pharmacy – which has locations in Poland, Struthers, Girard, Cornersburg, Columbiana and Brookfield, as well as eight in Pennsylvania – sold 3,000 rapid tests last week, says Ron McDermott, senior vice president of operations. All locations are currently sold out.

“Every time we walked them in the door, there were customers waiting for them,” he says.

The locally owned pharmacy chain is expecting a shipment of 10,000 on Thursday, which it will divide between its stores. Ohio locations will receive 500 to 600 each of the FDA-approved FlowFlex COVID-19 Antigen Home Test that day, which will sell for $17.50 apiece.

If Christmas week was any indication, McDermott expects these tests to sell quickly. Last week, Ohio locations had individuals willing to drive two hours to pick up a test. “Many of these folks are trying to be as careful as possible,” he says.

Other area pharmacies aren’t sure when their next shipment will come in. Lake Milton Pharmacy has been sold out for a week but can’t place orders for more because there’s no inventory among its wholesalers, says owner Alexis Benyo.

“We’re still getting 50 calls a day” from customers looking for tests, she says.

Family Drug in Columbiana is completely sold out and there are none available from its wholesaler, says Brian Kale, pharmacist. He has 75 on order, but doesn’t expect them to be in before New Year’s Eve.

“With the holiday travel, that definitely increased the demand,” he says.

Like Benyo, Kale receives numerous calls daily from residents seeking rapid tests. He’s been directing residents to try local libraries, which partnered with the Ohio Department of Health this year to distribute rapid at-home tests. However, local libraries are also struggling to keep tests on hand.

As of Dec. 27, all branches of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County have given away all of their tests, which were distributed for free. Typically the shipments of about 900 are delivered weekly. “Pretty much as soon as we get them in, they are gone,” says Maggie Henderson, strategic communications officer.

“The shipment we received last week is already gone,” Henderson says. “We’ve requested more tests from ODH, and it usually takes a few days to process and ship. So we hope to get more tests into our branches within the next week.”

Tuesday morning, the Boardman branch at 7680 Glenwood Ave. received a shipment of 36 rapid tests, Henderson confirms.

Shelves for rapid COVID tests were empty Monday at Mahoning Valley pharmacies.

The library has distributed more than 17,000 tests since March when the partnership with ODH began, she says. The bulk of that has been since September.

Over the last three months, back to school, the rise of the delta and omicron variants have kept demand consistent. Residents don’t need a library card and can reserve up to four tests.

Big box pharmacies aren’t faring much better. A quick visit to pharmacy locations around the city of Youngstown Monday afternoon found shelves bare with no rapid tests available. A Walgreens on Belmont Avenue had a sign posted to its front door that it was out of rapid COVID tests, and it was expecting a shipment Dec. 30.

Pharmacies are still conducting drive-thru COVID polymerase chain reaction, or PCR testing, which returns a customer’s results in at least 48 hours.

A saliva-based PCR test program has been “going wonderful” at Hometown Pharmacy locations, McDermott says. Each location tests a few hundred people weekly and there is no threat of running out of tests, he says.

Depending on when the customer has the test done, results can be turned around in at least 24 hours, he says.

“As far as PCR tests go, it’s definitely the easiest to have administered and the quickest turnaround,” he says. 

Customers can go to TheHometownPharmacies.com to schedule an appointment and fill out a form ahead of time, he says. If they have symptoms or have been exposed, McDermott recommends customers call ahead to let staff know so they can conduct the test curbside, he says.

Tests are free to customers who have been exposed or who have symptoms, including cold symptoms such as sniffles or cough. Otherwise, tests cost $69.99, McDermott says. So it isn’t recommended to use the saliva PCR test as a preventive type test.

“At this point though, it feels like most of the world has some sort of exposure going on right now,” he says. “Certainly in our area we’re seeing an uptick.”

As of Dec. 27, Trumbull County had the tri-county area’s highest positive rate in a 14-day period with 19.8% (4,150 per 100,000), according to Coronavirus.ohio.gov. Columbiana County followed with 16.7% (3,889 per 100,000) and Mahoning had 14.8% (4,886 per 100,000).

All three counties are below the state average of about 22.9%.

Pictured at top: Rapid COVID tests are fewer and farther between heading into New Year’s Eve.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.