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Orange County could face COVID-19 test shortage due to omicron surge

Dr. Natalie Doyle holds up a COVID-19 testing swab at her office in Wilson, N.C. on Nov. 15, 2020.

With the recent surge of the omicron variant, Orange County could face a shortage of COVID-19 tests. 

Reported infections recently peaked nationwide at nearly 800,000 in a seven-day rolling average, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the United States continues to see notable growth in cases. 

The increase is primarily due to the spread of the omicron variant, which is more transmissible than the original strain of the virus, according to the World Health Organization. 

Orange County has reported 2,627 cases over the past seven days, while North Carolina has reported 214,347. The state has the fourth-highest number of cases in the country. 

Because North Carolina shows a seven-day positivity percentage of over 25 percent, there is little indication that infections have peaked. 

In response to the growing number of cases, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a Jan. 11 press release describing its plans to support COVID-19 testing sites. 

According to the press release, the NCDHHS has ordered an additional 700,000 tests with the intent to distribute them to schools, local health departments and other health centers.

"With part speed and part tenacity, we continue to work to stay two steps ahead of a constantly evolving virus and crisis situation, increasing access to testing," NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley said in the release.

Unlike communities elsewhere in the state, Orange County has had few issues acquiring the resources necessary to conduct COVID-19 testing. Kristin Prelipp, communications manager for the Orange County Health Department, said the county’s testing sites have been generally well stocked in terms of test materials.

But Orange County could see challenges regarding testing in the future.

“Optum, who runs the testing clinic in Chapel Hill, says that they are running lower than they would like on rapid tests, and they do not know when they will get another CareStart Rapid Tests supply,” Prelipp said in an email.

Additionally, Prelipp said staffing issues — in part due to omicron — have prompted major changes in how Orange County conducts testing.

“We had to switch to appointments at the end of December,” she said. “We hope to return to the walk-in model when the demand is more manageable and the staffing has improved.”

In response to the shorter incubation period of the omicron variant, the Carolina Together Testing Program also moved to an appointment-based model prior at the start of the UNC spring term. 

While there could be new challenges regarding testing, some medical professionals have expressed optimism that the worst of omicron may be over. 

Mark Derewicz, director of research and national news at UNC Health, said the organization expects COVID-19 hospitalizations to peak soon, similar to trends in other parts of the country. 

"Regarding the spread of COVID, we expect the number of hospitalizations due to COVID to peak in the next couple of weeks," Derewicz said in an email.

Prelipp said the OCHD also believes omicron will peak soon and therefore decrease the pressure on testing sites.

There are alternatives for community members who are unable to set up an appointment at an Orange County testing center. The NCDHHS is providing collection kits in partnership with Labcorp for residents facing difficulties getting to a test site. The United States Postal Service has also offered to ship free at-home tests across the country.

Prelipp said the best way to stay safe is getting vaccinated and using high-quality masks.

“We want all our community members to take advantage of life-saving vaccines and boosters,” she said. “Lower your risk by limiting contact with people outside of your household.”

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