Monica Najera directs traffic at a rapid test site in South Austin on Dec. 21, 2021. The site has seen a steady stream of people getting tested for COVID-19 ahead of the holiday season. Credit: Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

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HOUSTON — Roxana Rome was at her third pharmacy in as many days and she still couldn’t find a rapid, at-home COVID-19 test. With her out-of-town family en route for a visit, Rome said she was worried about what she’s been hearing about the latest omicron variant and wanted to make sure her loved ones would be safe through the holidays.

With Christmas four days away, Rome said she might consider visiting a free testing site run by the city of Houston as a last resort. Frankly, she’s running out of time and doesn’t want to deal with long lines and even longer wait times to get her results back.

“It’s quicker, you just do it on your own and that’s it,” Rome said of the at-home tests.

Despite the wide availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, the rapid rise of the omicron variant has renewed a sense of uncertainty — just in time for Christmas gatherings. Now, Texans are clamoring for a quick and easy way to get some peace of mind via a negative test result. Drug stores like CVS and Walgreens report that tests, which cost roughly between $10 and $40 dollars, have been widely out of stock or of short supply nationwide for months.

Meanwhile, demand is soaring for free testing at city- and county-run sites.

While many public health officials say they have not reached testing capacity at their free, public sites even as they’ve seen demand jump, at least one local official told The Texas Tribune they had started to experience shortages.

“There’s a lot more demand for testing than there is capacity for testing,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said. “We made a request to the state for 5,000 additional tests and I don’t believe at this moment we’ve heard back from them yet.”

Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, said in a statement that the governor was continuing to focus on “therapeutic infusion centers, ramping up COVID vaccination efforts, and providing surge staffing and medical equipment to hospitals and nursing homes.” She referred a question about the state’s current testing efforts to the Department of State Health Services.

Meanwhile, health experts are cautioning people not to rely too heavily on test results — which are not always accurate — to guide holiday activities without taking into account other factors like a person’s vaccine status, health and age.

“It is a difficult situation for the general public. … I know it’s the last thing people want to hear,” said Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “But it’s not helpful for people thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to test, and if it is negative then I’m good to go.’”

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Yet that is exactly the confirmation that many Texans are looking for the rapid tests to provide.

“I just want to get tested because we’re all gathering for Christmas,” Rome said.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced a new plan to purchase 500 million rapid tests nationally, which would be available starting in January, along with a new website where people can request the at-home tests for free. The website would initially launch in New York City.

In the meantime, many free testing sites run by county and city governments in the state are seeing increases in demand. In Harris County, daily tests at its four testing sites increased from just 159 tests administered on Dec. 10 to 1,149 tests administered on Dec. 20. At the free sites run by the city of Houston health department, tests conducted went from 5,202 during the week of Thanksgiving to 10,121 the week of Dec. 9 and 8,363 the week of Dec. 16, according to data provided by the city.

On a Tuesday afternoon, on El Paso’s eastside, dozens of people in vehicles waited in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site.

Julian Lopez, the COVID-19 testing manager, said the site has been open since August 2021. Before November, he said they were testing on average 250 to 300 people a day. But “from one day to the next” it jumped to 1,000 people, he said.

Ever since early November, the site began to average 700 to 1,000 people a day.

Local health officials insist they have been able to meet the influx of testing patients so far and test results have steadily come in within two to three days as typically advertised. But a spokesperson for DSHS said the state can’t help the out-of-stock stores.

“There have been well-documented shortages of at-home testing kits,” said spokesperson Chris Van Deusen. “But that is outside of our purview, and based on today’s announcement, the federal government appears to be working to address that.”

Despite assurances from local officials that they have testing capacity, some Texans say they’ve avoided local sites because of concerns about long waits and inconsistent results.

Harris County resident Rorea Williams, 23, said their family refused to go to the local free testing site this week because of a previous experience in which they waited in line for hours, only to never receive the results. This time, the family went to a local urgent care to quickly get a rapid test, which ended up costing hundreds of dollars because insurance wouldn’t cover the tests.

“If you are showing symptoms, you’re sitting in a car running a fever for four plus hours,” Williams said. “[My mom] was like, ‘I don’t have that time to wait. I feel really sick. I need to be at home resting.’”

Williams’ current job requires a negative test if an employee has been exposed to the virus. Williams spent Tuesday morning traveling to multiple pharmacies to try to find a rapid at-home test without success.

“Every time it was a hassle, even in the beginning,” Williams said. “There hasn’t really been a good system of accessible, reliable health care if you’re scared you have COVID and you don’t have $100 lying around to go get rapid tested frequently.”

Meanwhile, many health officials are thinking about how to handle potential demand after the holiday season.

Jennifer Kiger, the COVID division director for Harris County Public Health, said that county officials had a conversation with federal officials Tuesday to increase the number of tests and staff available in the new year. Testing capacity among those sites currently totals 2,200 per day.

Jen Samp, a spokesperson for Austin Public Health, said the city has seen an increase in demand for testing and has expanded hours at its sites. She called the spike in demand a good thing.

“I’m glad we’re getting the word out that people need to test before gathering or test before traveling” for the holidays, Samp said. “We know that’s a very important way to stop the spread right now.”

In Tarrant County, Dr. Kenton Murthy, assistant director of the Tarrant County Health Authority, told the Tribune that demand has increased steadily there in recent days, but it has been manageable, which he attributes to five new testing sites that have opened since Thanksgiving.

“We’ve been in essentially what feels like a war in the last few years,” Murthy said, who stressed getting vaccinated even above testing and remained optimistic that the county could celebrate the holidays without increased COVID cases. “We just have to band together, do the right thing — still enjoy ourselves, still enjoy our families — and just follow those public health guidelines and measures and we will get out of the holiday hopefully unscathed.”

Yet Murthy said the county is still bracing for a surge in people getting tested after the holiday season, especially as omicron continues to ramp up. He said there have been discussions to open a mass testing site, but the county is waiting to see what case numbers look like at that point.

But Cervantes warned that any test, whether it’s a rapid antigen test or the more accurate PCR test, has the potential for a false negative result, another reason she warned against purely using test results to determine whether it’s safe to gather for holidays.

In west Houston, Clarice Thompson worried she was experiencing that exact issue.

On Tuesday, she sat in her car at a city-run testing site at a community civic center, waiting for a PCR test. Her daughter traveled home for the holidays from Washington, D.C., and started to show cold-like symptoms. Thompson decided to get a PCR test because she figured the city-run tests were more reliable.

“She took the at-home tests and it kept saying negative,” Thompson said. “We don’t know if we need to wear masks for Christmas, or what we’re going to do.”

Uriel García and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Disclosure: University of North Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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