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A surge in demand for virus tests is swamping the U.S. system.

todayDecember 18, 2021 1

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s coronavirus testing capacity, already straining to keep up with demand, is facing enormous new pressure, with holiday travelers waiting in long lines to be tested, overworked laboratories struggling to keep up and rapid at-home diagnostics flying off pharmacy shelves as the Omicron variant fuels a rapid spike in Covid-19 cases.

Two years into the pandemic, the surging desire for tests in the face of limited supply threatens to thwart President Biden’s response, but it is hardly a new problem. The United States has bungled testing from the outset of the pandemic, experts say, and matching supply with demand has been a persistent challenge for both the Trump and Biden administrations.

Mr. Biden came into office vowing to make testing for the virus cheap and easily accessible, and there have been some improvements since he was sworn in. Laboratory tests are more plentiful now, and more than a dozen at-home tests are available, up from zero in January. The Food and Drug Administration has sped up its approval process, and the supply of at-home tests has increased steadily since August; last month, it was expected to double by March.

But the United States remains a far cry from Europe, where more than three dozen types of at-home tests are available for as little as $1 to $2 per test. Americans can pay as much as $25 for a box of two, and Mr. Biden’s plan to have insurers reimburse for those purchases will not take effect until mid-January at the earliest.

In Miami, cars lined up bumper to bumper this week at a drive-through test site. In Providence, R.I., there were no testing appointments available at a local CVS; those looking to be tested were instructed to buy over-the-counter at-home tests.

Around the country, retailers — both online and brick-and-mortar — are having trouble keeping over-the-counter tests in stock. Walmart was selling Abbott’s rapid antigen test online Friday, but many stores in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs were sold out. In Houston, the pharmacist at a local Walgreens, Hanh Ho, said shipments of at-home tests arrive every Wednesday and sell out the same day.

“They’re a hot item,” Mr. Ho said. “One guy came in and took all of them.”

Reporting was contributed by Maria Jimenez Moya from Houston, Ben Berke from Providence, R.I., Eric Adelson from Orlando, Fla., and Grace Gorenflo from Seattle.

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todayDecember 18, 2021 1