By Dildar Baykan Atalay and Servet Gunerigok
WASHINGTON (AA) - As the new omicron COVID-19 variant sweeps across the US, testing centers have been hit with hours-long queues amid a surge in cases nationwide and looming holidays.
The country, the world’s hardest hit by the pandemic, reporting the most cases and deaths, is facing challenges created by the omicron variant and a lack of testing resources.
Cases have peaked in many states, primarily in New York and New Jersey, as well as in Washington, DC, because of the new variant and health experts fear that the number of cases and deaths will rise as the winter months approach.
With that, long queues are forming in front of testing centers in the country, particularly in states on the East Coast. Wait times can take up to 4-5 hours in some spots.
Shoppers on the hunt for at-home tests are finding empty shelves at pharmacies and supermarkets. In some locations, people are only allowed to buy one or two kits where they are available.
- Christmas and omicron
The biggest reason for the challenges experienced in testing stems from supply chain bottlenecks and the country being unprepared for the rapid spread of the variant.
Many manufacturers are not able to produce enough test kits due to a lack of employees, leading to disruptions and delays in their delivery and preventing the authorities from combating the increasing number of cases.
In a Tuesday address at the White House, President Joe Biden was asked if it was a failure that his administration does not have an adequate amount of tests for everyone.
"It's not a failure, but an alarm bell went off. I don't think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did," he said.
Meanwhile, an increase in the number of cases in recent days has coincided with the start of the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season, during which Americans travel the most and the need for testing skyrockets.
As many airlines require a negative test result for both domestic and international flights, people who want to spend the holidays with their families have flocked to testing centers.
In addition, some Americans want to get tested before spending time with their families even if they are not traveling to other states.
Another reason for the crowds at testing centers is due to an increase in diseases such as colds and the flu with the cold weather. People who show symptoms of these diseases want to make sure they do not have COVID-19 and get tested as a precaution.
Anadolu Agency spoke with some of those who were waiting in line to get vaccinated in Pentagon City, Virginia on Tuesday.
One Pentagon City resident, Adam, who did not want to give his last name, said he came for testing because he had come into contact with a friend who tested positive earlier.
“I'm planning on going home to see my family for Christmas, so I want to be extra sure before I go back that they don't have it. So that's why I'm here," said Adam, who is from Maryland.
When asked about the long line at the testing center, he said a few weeks ago, there would be nobody in line.
"And I'm kind of wondering if that's a Christmas thing, or if it's just because cases have gotten so crazy in DC recently. Probably a little bit of both," he added.
On the other hand, there are those who say it is worth waiting a long time to get a shot before meeting family members on Christmas Day.
Kara, a teacher, said she will be seeing her grandparents later this week.
"And we were in some big groups over the weekend. So I just want to be safe," she said.
On the long queues, she said: "I think it's encouraging that people in our community care, you know, that they're concerned about this [COVID-19], and they want to make sure that we're safe.”
"The more tests we can get, the better," she added.
Panni, 27, wanted to get tested before traveling to Asia for Christmas.
"I need a COVID test to fly...So in order for me to get to the flight, I need a COVID result that I'm okay to fly out," she said.
She said everyone has to wait for "time taking" testing to travel.
"I have no choice. You have to be here to get a test done.”
- 500 million test kits
In his Tuesday speech, Biden announced that his administration is preparing to distribute 500 million free at-home COVID-19 testing kits to Americans as well as setting up new testing sites and mobilizing 1,000 military medical personnel.
"The federal government will purchase one half billion -- that's not million; billion with a "B" -- additional at-home rapid tests, with deliveries starting in January," he said.
"We'll be getting these tests to Americans for free. And we'll have websites where you can get them delivered to your home," he added.
Despite Biden's plans to combat the pandemic, with the emergence of the new variant, worries prevail that traveling during the Christmas holiday period will spread COVID-19 more if the test shortage continues and people can’t be tested.
According to data from Maryland-based Johns Hopkins University, the US has registered over 51.2 million coronavirus cases and more than 810,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in late 2019.