Ohio COVID Test Priorities Leave Health Districts, Libraries Without

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — With the state prioritizing K-12 schools and colleges/universities for distribution of a short supply of BinaxNow at-home COVID-19 tests, county health districts and local libraries are unsure of when they’ll receive their next shipment.

On Wednesday, the ODH announced it had received 400,000 of the proctored testing kits produced by the Illinois-based Abbott, well short of the 1.2 million it ordered for January. Delivery of the remaining 800,000 is delayed because of supply issues as demand increased amid the national omicron-driven surge of COVID, according to an ODH release.

The department expects to receive more tests this month. As supplies are available, schools, colleges and universities will be served first to meed their needs and keep students and teachers in the classroom, the ODH reported.

At the end of December, Abbott reported it was on track to produce 70 million BinaxNow tests in January, which is up from some 50 million produced in December.

Existing and new requests from health districts and libraries will be be met in the order they are received as more tests become available. However, health districts in the Mahoning Valley are unsure of how long that might be.

Mahoning County Public Health and the Columbiana County General Health District are completely out, while the Trumbull County Combined Health District has fewer than 50 in stock, representatives reported Thursday morning. They had anticipate more tests coming in based on a new allocation formula ODH was developing to prioritize areas based on need and population size.

“Now they’ve changed it again to prioritize K-12 and colleges,” says Laura Fauss, public information officer for the Columbiana County district. “It was very convenient and it was a great resource when we had them. Hopefully we’ll get an additional shipment soon.”

Health departments and libraries procured tests from the ODH to distribute to residents free of charge. While there are alternative sources for purchasing tests, health departments don’t have the state funds to do so.

“Our current COVID grants contain very specific deliverables to meet, such as case investigations, contact tracing, and conducting vaccine clinics,” explains Frank Migliozzi, health commissioner for Trumbull County. “Likewise, all our current funding mechanisms are specific to performing the required duties of those programs and severely limit our ability to purchase [the tests].”

Without a supply of free tests available, residents are left to find and purchase them from local pharmacies when available. Columbiana County has been diverting residents to other testing facilities, including one in Canton, and other local community organizations that have testing capabilities, Fauss says.

Last month, the Biden administration announced plans to have private insurers cover the cost of COVID test kits, though local health departments haven’t received any new information on that yet.

“We haven’t received much detail on the logistics of the program,” says Ryan Tekac, Mahoning County health commissioner. “Once we receive additional detail on how that program works, we will share any known information via our public information channels.”

Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced private insurers would be reimbursing testing starting this Saturday, Jan. 15. According to the administration, individuals covered by a health insurance plan who purchase an FDA-approved, over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic test can have the cost of those tests covered by their insurance.

Insurance companies and health plans will be required to cover eight free over-the-counter at-home tests per covered individual per month, NPR reported Jan. 10. A family of four covered by the same plan, for example, could receive up to 32 tests.

Other efforts include providing 50 million free, at-home self-test kits to community health centers and rural clinics, establishing more than 20,000 free community-based pharmacy testing sites and creating surge testing sites.

President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the government will double to 1 billion the rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests to be distributed free to Americans, along with the most protective N95 masks, as he highlighted his efforts to “surge” resources to help the country weather the spike in coronavirus cases, the Associated Press reports.

Biden said that he is directing his team to double its procurement of rapid COVID-19 tests to be delivered for free to Americans through a forthcoming federal website, as he seeks to respond to criticism over shortages and long lines for tests. The initial order was for 500 million tests, and now the federal government will purchase 1 billion at-home testing kits. Biden said the website will launch next week.

Biden also announced that for the first time his administration was planning to make high-quality N95 masks, which are most effective at preventing transmission of the virus, available for free. He said his administration would announce details next week.

The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said this week.

Biden also announced that starting next week 1,000 military medical personnel will begin deploying across the country to help overwhelmed medical facilities ease staff shortages due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.

During the White House press briefing Wednesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advised Americans to take a test when they have symptoms that appear to be COVID-19 – fever, cough, sore throat, respiratory symptoms, muscle aches – five days after they’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID, and if they’re going to gather with family or others who are immunocompromised, elderly or unvaccinated.

To increase access to COVID testing in schools, the Biden administration plans to send 5 million free rapid tests to schools each month and provide another 5 million lab-based tests each month.

“These 10 million additional tests available each month will allow schools to double the volume of testing they were performing in November,” said Jeffrey Zients, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator.

During the briefing, Dr. Tom Inglesby, former director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, was named lead of the federal testing program to increase Americans’ access to testing.

Demand for tests in Ohio remains strong overall, according to the ODH. The state currently reports a seven-day average of 94,000 tests daily. Thus far, the state has distributed some 5.6 million free testing kits, including 1.4 million in December alone.

Valley health districts say demand for tests has gone down after the first week of the year, but they still receive calls from residents inquiring about tests.

Demand has been consistent at The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County since students went back to school in August and September, reports Maggie Henderson, strategic communications officer. Demand “increased significantly right before Thanksgiving and has remained consistently hight,” she says.

Since partnering with ODH to distribute tests in March 2021, the library has distributed more than 17,000 in the area, she reports. That includes 4,000 tests distributed from nine of its branches on Jan. 3 in partnership with Mahoning County Public Health. Supplies were all but depleted shortly after the branches opened at 9 a.m.

Image courtesy of Abbott

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.