USAmerica Letter

Fears US will run out of Covid tests if new winter wave materialises

Biden administration urges take-up of updated vaccine as authorities try to clarify president’s ‘pandemic is over’ comment

Earlier this week I received a Covid-19 booster shot in the supermarket while doing the shopping.

It is not as radical as it may appear. Many supermarkets in the United States have full-scale pharmacies integrated into their operations.

The new updated Covid-19 booster was administered in the pharmacy section of the shop adjacent to the aisles selling milk and dairy products. The waiting area was a store room with cardboard boxes of stationary supplies on one side and others marked “peanut butter” on the other.

The in-house pharmacy also provided several free Covid tests to take home.


The Covid vaccinations in the supermarket are usually prearranged, but some walk-in patients are accepted.

It is certainly a world away from the days 18 months ago when we watched in Ireland at the ever-changing delivery schedules of the vaccine to the Health Service Executive and then waited in line in the big vaccination facilities established in places such as University College Dublin and Dublin City University.

The provision of free Covid tests was also in marked contrast to the scarcity of these products during the big wave after last Christmas. At the time, pharmacies — certainly in Washington and northern Virginia — had signs on their doors basically telling customers not to bother coming in looking for such test kits as none were available.

Commercial test centres were charging $100 for a simple antigen test.

There are no supply issues at present. However, the Biden administration said this week that if there is another big surge of Covid cases, the availability of tests may once again dry up very quickly.

The administration has made no secret of the fact that it does not have the money to implement all of its plans for tackling Covid, due to the US Congress not authorising the funding it has sought.

And this week Covid response co-ordinator Dr Ashish Jha made clear the country was entering the winter without adequate stocks of Covid tests. He said there were official estimates that if there was another Omicron-style Covid wave, the US would need a stockpile of 800-900 million tests.

“We’re going to have nowhere near that, so that is a real problem”, he said.

The administration is hoping that a new vaccination campaign using the updated vaccines will head off any potential new Covid surge that could materialise along with traditional flu this winter as more people work and socialise indoors.

In late August, US drug regulators authorised the use of the new updated Covid-19 vaccine booster that targets both the original strain of the virus and the more recent Omicron variant.

These are now available for everyone aged over 12 who has already received their initial vaccinations and booster shots.

However, a tracking survey in late September by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation said awareness of the updated vaccines was modest. About half of adults had heard “a lot” or “some” details about the new products. But about 20 per cent said they knew nothing at all.

Nearly 80 per cent of adults across the US now have received at least one Covid-19 vaccination shot.

However, 23 per cent of the US adult population remain unvaccinated with the vast majority of these signalling that they will “definitely not” receive a vaccine.

US health authorities were already having problems convincing people of the need to receive booster shots, and comments by president Joe Biden probably have not helped their cause. About 105 million adults in the US have received the first booster — for many the third vaccination shot — since it became available last year.

However, just as the drive for the new updated booster shot was getting under way, the president seemed to mix up the message. In an interview with the 60 Minutes programme on CBS television in late September, Mr Biden said: “We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one is wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”

A lot of this is true. Mask wearing has fallen away, even in places like Washington where compliance with previous rules had been quite high, while the incidence of Covid has been falling steadily in the US.

Mr Jha tried to clarify the president’s comments this week. He said Mr Biden had been clear Covid remained a problem and there was still a lot of work to do. However, the likelihood is that all most people heard from the interview was the phrase: “The pandemic is over.”

More than 400 people on average are still dying daily from Covid-19 in the US. This, however, is way down from the peaks when thousands were dying each day, though it remains a significant number.

Mr Jha said about 13-15 million Americans have already received the updated vaccine and it was always anticipated the numbers would build up over time. But the authorities’ next challenge is to deal with pandemic fatigue to build up those numbers in advance of a potential new wave of the disease this winter.