A reporter’s futile daylong quest to find a COVID rapid test in the North Bay

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

David has kind eyes and a ready smile. He is courteous, empathetic, a pleaser. As a greeter, or “customer host” at the Walmart in Windsor, he wants very much to accommodate shoppers who walk past his station after entering the store.

So it galled him, clearly, to be the bearer of bad news to a Press Democrat reporter whose assignment on Friday was to scour stores to find, and purchase, a COVID-19 self-test — the kind that offers rapid results in the privacy of one’s home.

“Everybody’s out of ‘em!” explained David, turning his palms upward as if to say, What are you gonna do?

He got that right. As this newspaper reported Thursday, increased demand for COVID-19 testing, driven by the surge in daily infections from the omicron variant, has led to shortages of testing kits and supplies across Sonoma County, and the country.

The best known brand of these rapid, at-home tests is BinaxNOW, made by Abbott Laboratories. These days, those highly sought-after kits go for somewhere between $20 and $24 — if you can find them.

This scribe could not, striking out at six pharmacies. I also came up empty with my Sutter primary care physician, whose assistant informed me that the next available date for a phone appointment, when we would discuss my symptoms — which, admittedly, were nonexistent — was five days away. I also whiffed at the testing center in the parking lot of the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets, whose busy employees proved completely immune to my charms.

Remaining in my car, as the signs instructed, I leaned out the window while Terasa White, decked out in PPE, shared that they’d surged from 40 customers on Friday, Dec. 31, to some 460 the following Monday.

That’s when we went to online appointments, said her colleague, who then suggested I try scheduling an online appointment myself.

“I’m not sure we have any more available today,” she said, “but possibly next week.” A quick search on my phone, after I’d driven a short way and parked by the Old Navy, revealed that the soonest available appointment at the Petaluma site was a week out. The wait for a rapid test at the company’s Napa testing site was 5 days. The wait in Oakland was 8 days, but 3 days to get tested in the Marin County cities of Novato and San Anselmo.

Having grown weary, apparently, of delivering customers the bad news, the CVS on East Washington St. in Petaluma posted a sign on the door that sought to manage expectations: SORRY ALL SOLD OUT OF COVID TESTS.

When might a new shipment arrive? The batches of tests are delivered Monday nights, one store employee told me (She preferred we not use her name, as CVS doesn’t allow its employees to talk to reporters.) “And we’re sold out by Monday night or Tuesday morning. You almost have to luck into walking into the store as they’re arriving.”

The size of those deliveries has varied wildly, she added. “We got 36 last week, and 400 the week before.”

To prevent stockpiling and hoarding, CVS limits customers to one test per person, “and they still sell out in 4 to 6 hours,” said the employee.

Bad news signs have been posted, likewise, at the Safeway pharmacy on the east side of Petaluma, where a white-robed pharmacy technician told me, “We don’t anticipate getting them for awhile now.”

That morning, the tech continued, employees had gotten an email informing them that the tests are “currently in short supply due to omicron and the recent federal government purchase of millions of them.”

President Biden vowed in December to make 500 million coronavirus tests available, free of charge, but those tests remain weeks away, according to the New York Times. Officials from the administration haven’t specified when those tests might be available.

Meanwhile, Abbott Laboratories is lashing out at “bad actors” who are reportedly taking advantage of the acute nationwide demand by reselling the BinaxNOW at-home kits for double and triple their retail price.

Back at the Windsor Walmart, after assuring David the greeter that he bore no blame for the shortage of rapid tests, I embarked on a trek to the store’s pharmacy. Who says David knows everything?

I got only partway through my inquiry to the kindly technician working the pharmacy’s drop-off line.

“Just a quick question about COVID rapid t” ---

“We don’t have any,” came her swift reply. “See that empty shelf behind the glass right there? That’s where they would normally be.”

Was there a scheduled day for delivery of the tests? There was not.

“Find out when the store opens, then come in super early,” she suggested.

These are stressful times for those on healthcare’s front lines. Thus the need for the sign taped to the plexiglass in the Cotati Walgreens pharmacy: “Our nation is short-staffed. Please be kind to those who are here to help you.”

A technician in a red-flannel shirt was toggling expertly between in-store customers and those using the drive-thru, doing the work of two people. Small wonder, then, that she answered my question before it was all the way out of my mouth. This was becoming a pattern.

“I don’t know when they’re going to show up again,” she said. “Supply is not keeping up with demand. Sorry!”

A 30-something mom in line behind me offered helpful advice:

“Try Amazon.” On that site, she said the rapid tests go for “about $23. But the price per unit drops, the more tests you order. “We got like, 40 or 50,” she said.

I would’ve settled for one.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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