Health Care

Finding a take-home Covid test at a Vermont pharmacy is hit or miss

Lynne Vezina of the Vermont Family Pharmacy in Burlington on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Lynne Vezina did not have any over-the-counter Covid tests available at Vermont Family Pharmacy on Thursday and her supplier had not told her when she would get a shipment. 

“I have them on a back order and I check three times a day, but it hasn’t been available for, I would say, 10 days,” Vezina said.

The tests can indicate within 15 minutes whether a person is infected with Covid. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking the tests again at least 24 hours later as the tests do not immediately pick up whether a person is infected. The quick turnaround makes the tests a practical way for people to figure out whether they should get together with others. 

But as the Omicron variant causes case numbers to multiply and Vermonters head into celebrations of the new year, supply of the tests is haphazard.

Vezina said decisions by the federal government and the Vermont Department of Health to hand out take-home Covid tests have dried up the supply to pharmacies. 

She recognized that government distribution of free tests may mean that more people are getting them. 

“But I just think that before, the state wasn’t getting any tests to give to anybody (and) the federal government wasn’t getting any tests to anybody, and so we could get them, but when they put in all these orders for them, I think it took it out of the supply chain,” Vezina said.

Lakeside Pharmacy in Burlington did have rapid antigen tests for sale on Thursday. 

“We just managed to get some in,” staff pharmacist Ryan Quinn said.

Quinn said the order the pharmacy got on Wednesday and another it received last week mark the first time he has been able to obtain take-home tests from any distributor since around Halloween.

“Since these have been available for the average person, there has been kind of a steady demand for them,” Quinn said.

The pharmacist said until October, he would only be able to order two boxes of a test, enough for two people. 

“I limited them to a box a person and most of the time, I would order those tests and I would end up selling those tests within the hour of my stocking them,” Quinn said. 

Walgreens did not respond to an emailed question about whether the drug store chain has any over-the-counter Covid tests at any of its stores in Vermont. 

Instead, Zoe Crey, manager of retail and merchandising communications, emailed a statement. 

“Due to the incredible demand for at-home rapid testing, we put in effect a four item purchase limit on at-home COVID-19 testing products in our stores and digital properties in an effort to help improve inventory while we continue to work diligently with our supplier partners to best meet customer demands,” Crey said.

She said some stores may experience a temporary shortage in rapid over-the-counter tests and referred customers to for updates on the latest available store inventory information.

It is a cumbersome process. You have to locate a particular store, then type in “Covid,” upon which a list of all the over-the-counter tests Walgreens sells drops down. You then have to pick an individual test to see if the store has it in stock.

VTDigger did searches for every over-the-counter Covid test Walgreens sells at the 158 Cherry St. store in Burlington. None were available on Thursday.

A spokesperson for CVS did not directly respond to an emailed question on whether tests are available at Vermont stores either. 

“We continue to work around the clock to provide stores with inventory of the five over-the-counter at-home COVID-19 tests we offer,” spokesperson Tara Burke said in an email. 

Burke said CVS has imposed a limit of six test kits per purchase. 

“We’re committed to providing families with protection and peace of mind during the holiday season, and we continue to offer access to lab-based testing with results available in 1-2 days or rapid COVID-19 testing at more than 4,800 CVS Pharmacy locations (nationwide),” Burke said. 

Shaws and Albertsons, owners of Hannaford, did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting information. 

Andy Miller, owner of Brattleboro Pharmacy, did respond, but said in an email he was “really busy” on Thursday.

Kinnney Drugs President John Marraffa said the company has just shipped 60,000 antigen tests to stores in New York and Vermont. 

“It’s really hard to say where we have them or don’t have them in stock because they’re selling as fast as we can put them on the shelf,” Marraffa said.

Marraffa said the stores open between 8:30 and 9 a.m., and by 9 a.m. Thursday 400 test kits had already sold. 

“I would say that in certain pockets of Vermont there’s probably a few tests remaining,” Marraffa said. 

He hopes to get more supply in stock by Monday. He said the federal and Vermont governments are making test kits available to Kinney in certain areas.

“When you think about Kinney drugs, think about how rural our markets are, so in some areas, we’re able to (get) support from the feds and from the state level as well,” Marraffa said.

Kinney has 21 stores in Vermont.

“Our goal is to distribute these kits within our communities to help keep everyone safe and get us back to normal,” Marraffa said.

The tests are extremely difficult to get from suppliers, said Jeff Hochberg, one of the owners of Smilin’ Steve, a chain of six Vermont pharmacies.

“Usually they’re battling with (the) federal government (and) state governments alike,” said Hochberg, the president of the Vermont Retail Drug Association. 

That battle is for supplies of drug test kits, said Hochberg, and the biggest customers get the biggest allocations. This makes it especially hard for a small chain like his or for independent pharmacies to get supplies.

Hochberg said four big distributors, McKessen, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and Smith Drug, control most of the supply. He said test kits are very difficult to get through those four distributors.  

He is now turning to alternative distributors that have some supply, he said. 

“I’m working with one of them trying to obtain a large quantity for my stores,” Hochberg said. 

But then, he said, another challenge arises: Whether the test kits distributed through those smaller distributors are covered by insurance companies. 

He said he has been able to get one test kit that is not accepted by insurance companies, and so customers cannot get reimbursed. 

“It falls short of being a good substitute for the initiative here to get products free of charge to every Vermonter,” Hochberg said.

The Vermont Family Pharmacy in Burlington on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Clarification: This story has been clarified to better reflect how Covid tests work.

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

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