As omicron becomes state's dominant strain, Minnesotans seek rapid tests and shots

Boxes of rapid covid test
Boxes of BinaxNOW rapid antigen self tests for COVID-19. These tests, along with other rapid at home tests, have been selling quickly at pharmacies and stores as families get together for the holidays.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Over the last few months, Kate Loe regularly picked up boxes of BinaxNow COVID-19 antigen tests.

“It's just become part of our routine for me and my kids before we get together with anyone and certainly after any exposure that the kids might have at school or through sports.”

But over the last few weeks, Loe, who lives in Minneapolis, said those tests have been harder to come by. She found the pharmacies she visited were sold out.

“I ordered some online and was originally given a date of [Dec. 23]. So I thought I would have them in time for the holidays then I received a notice that I actually wouldn't receive them until [Dec. 30],” she said. “Then I had to go back in order more, to do a curbside pickup at a pharmacy. So it's certainly been more challenging.”

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Loe said she’s hoping to have enough on hand to give to relatives before they all get together. She’s also taking a PCR test this week as a more sure way to find out if she is infected.

With travel expected to be near pre-pandemic levels, the demand for COVID tests — as well as vaccinations — are up across the board. The fast-spreading omicron variant adds urgency. State health officials on Wednesday announced that omicron is now the dominant strain of the coronavirus in Minnesota.

St. Paul Corner Drug owner and pharmacist John Hoeschen has ordered dozens of boxes of rapid tests.

“It's like every second or third customer is buying Binax. I mean, it's in very high demand right now,” he said.

Hoeschen said he’s had to find multiple distributors to keep his shelves stocked. At the same time, booster shot appointments are all filling up.

“I think it's all coming together at once, right? I mean, you got the Thanksgiving holiday, you got the announcement of omicron … then couple that with the Christmas and New Year's holiday and events and gatherings, I think a lot of people are a little bit nervous right now.”

A spokesperson for Abbott Labs, which manufactures the BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests, said the company is seeing unprecedented demand and currently produces about 50 million tests per month, with the goal of up to 70 million per month in January.

On the Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters page, an information portal for Minnesotans looking to find COVID vaccines and boosters, the location of Binax and other tests is a frequent topic of conversation.

Tables with cleaning spray are spaced apart in a large room.
A line of tables awaits people getting tested for COVID-19 at a testing site in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2020

Maura Caldwell, the administrator of the page, sees questions on boosters as well and even posts seeking information for those new to vaccination.

“Multiple people posted looking for a first dose for someone and I'm so quick to jump on those posts and say, ‘I will book it for you,’” Caldwell said. “Maybe somebody wouldn't see them this holiday, or maybe they know somebody who passed away or is in the hospital, or whatever it is, and they finally said, ‘Let's do this.’”

Sara Vetter with the Minnesota Infectious Disease Laboratory said rapid tests, while convenient, have limitations.

“It can give a false sense of security that you aren't carrying around a virus,” Vetter said.

A rapid antigen test is not as reliable as a PCR test, especially for those who are asymptomatic, Vetter said.

“It's best to use a rapid antigen test if you are symptomatic. And you want to take a test to find out if you're positive so that then you can isolate right away and inform your contacts,” she said. “So in that case, it can give you a rapid answer so that you can take your own steps to protect yourself and others more quickly.”

Vetter advises looking for PCR tests at your health care provider or a state testing site. Or search “COVID test near me” on the web.