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Many People Are Still Finding It Difficult To Get Tested For COVID-19 In Maine

Illinois National Guard via AP
In this undated photo provided by the Illinois National Guard a first responder is tested for COVID-19 at a drive through testing facility in Chicago.

As the state opens up its borders and businesses, the demand for COVID-19 testing is going up.

That demand may have eased ever-so-slightly with Gov. Janet Mills' announcement Wednesday that visitors from New Jersey, Connecticut and New York would no longer have to undergo testing or quarantine to come to Maine, but some people are reporting that it's still extremely difficult to get a test.

Mark Ziarnik of New Harbor Maine is looking forward to a visit from his son who lives in Connecticut. That visit was suddenly made a whole lot easier with the governor's announcement exempting travelers from Connecticut from the previous requirement of either a 14 day quarantine or the acquisition of a negative COVID test. But until that very moment, the family was facing some hard choices, because Ziarnik says they could not find a place either in Connecticut or Maine that would do the test for an asymptomatic person who simply needed clearance for travel to Maine.

"It's very frustrating when they say, you know, I listen to Dr. Shah and the governor talk about how testing is becoming more widely available, but it hasn't been my experience that that's true," says Ziarnik.

He is not alone. Maine Public has received multiple reports from people who say they are unable to get a test, even when returning from out of state. If they are able to get the test, the results take a week or more to come back.

During Wednesday's state Center for Disease Control briefing, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew reiterated that the state's standing test order covers those with symptoms, those at elevated risk, including people coming from high risk states, as well as certain high-risk minority communities.

But Ziarnik says his neighbor who just returned to Maine after spending six months in Florida, which has a higher infection zone, also had trouble .

"Basically she had to lie and say she was experiencing some symptoms in order to get tested,” says Ziarnik. “We'd like to keep Maine's COVID rate low, but we need people to help us keep it low."

One group that is finding itself right in the middle of the issue in the state's hospitality industry.

Late last month, Governor Mills cleared the way for hotels to host out-of-state guests who did not quarantine, as long as those visitors obtained a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival. They must also fill out and sign a Certificate promising that they are in compliance with the law.

Initially, Sara Diment, owner of the Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, says she was directing visitors to local urgent care centers to get testing upon arrival.

"But as of right now, according to a guest I talked to last night, you really can't get a test unless you have symptoms or a doctor’s order."

Diment says she has now changed tactics and is trying to help visitors locate testing in their home state before they come. She says one visitor due to arrive from Washington D.C. on Thursday stood in line for almost four hours to get her test, and whether she gets the results back in time is anyone's guess.

"What happens to all these hotels when somebody says, ‘well I can't get my test back in time, so I'm canceling,’ and it's the morning of their arrival? Okay, so now I've just lost a three or a four night reservation that's kind of desperately needed right now."

"We're working with the state to try to iron some of those things out, but there's no question that hospitals are still short on testing supplies," says Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association.

He says hospitals and clinics across the country are having to prioritize certain tests, such as for those who have symptoms, those who have been exposed to COVID-19 or are directed by a doctor to get tested, and healthcare workers. Maine, he says, is no different, despite recent efforts by the state to expand testing capacity with IDEXX Laboratories. And Michaud says that as other states, such as Texas, reopen and experience a surge in cases, the materials needed for the test kits are being impacted even further.

"Without a doubt we're already starting to feel that a little bit. Where, again, we've made huge progress because of what the administration did with IDEXX, but we're already starting to see that those big, big numbers in those bigger states are starting to consume resources that's going to make the supply even tighter up here as well." Michaud says that for now, testing for vacation and travel will likely take a back seat to medical testing.

The Maine DHHS is hoping to dramatically expand testing capacity this summer through its partnership with IDEXX , with an eventual goal of ensuring that 90 percent of Maine residents can access testing within 30 minutes of their homes. But there's still an emphasis on those with symptoms, higher risk groups and special groups, and universal testing for all may not happen for some time.

Originally published at 5:45 p.m. ET July 1, 2020.