Major retailers including Walgreens, CVS, Amazon and Walmart will limit the amount of rapid COVID-19 tests customers can purchase at one time, citing a rapid increase in demand with not enough immediate supply to keep up.
Walgreens on Tuesday was among the first to make the announcement, saying the company has seen an “unprecedented demand for related testing and vaccine services and products” due to the combination of pre-holiday testing and a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant.
Omicron on Monday became the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States, and while scientists are still racing to gather information on the variant, preliminary data suggests it is much more transmissible than previous iterations of the virus. The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases hit 149,300 on Wednesday, an increase of about 25% from the week before, per government data.
Walgreens, which has over 9,000 locations across all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, will limit customer purchases to four rapid COVID-19 tests both in stores and online for the foreseeable future.
“With heightened demand for COVID vaccines, testing and other services, in addition to the busy holiday season, our pharmacy and store team members are working incredibly hard every day,” Walgreens president John Standley wrote in a statement. “We ask that our customers please show patience and understanding as together, we continue to navigate the evolving pandemic environment.”
CVS made a similar announcement the same day, adding in an email to Spectrum News on Wednesday that there may be limited test availability online in order to accommodate surging demand for over-the-counter tests at its 9,900-plus brick-and-mortar locations.
Customers both in stores and online will be limited to six test kits per purchase. CVS currently sells five over-the-counter COVID tests – Abbott BinaxNOW, Acon FlowFlex, Quidel Quickvue, Ellume, and Pixel by LabCorp – which range in price from $9.99 (FlowFlex, a rapid antigen test) to $124.99 (Pixel, a PCR test).
PCR tests are sent to a lab for analysis, and can more accurately detect asymptomatic COVID, while rapid antigen tests can be used at home, and are better suited for individuals already showing symptoms.
“If you have symptoms, you could start with a rapid test, but if that rapid test is negative, I would very much say go get your PCR tests because we know that it's possible to still have a rapid negative if you have symptoms,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Spectrum News on Wednesday.
Both CVS and Walgreens say they anticipate being able to continue turning around results of the PCR tests within 24 - 48 hours; both also offer on-site appointments for rapid COVID tests.
In a statement emailed to Spectrum News on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Walmart said the company has seen "significant demand" for at-home testing kits, particularly online.
"We have a purchase limit of 8 testing kits per online order to help ensure availability to more customers," the spokesperson added. "We have not placed limits nationally for in store purchases, however each store may or may not set its own limits based upon local inventory."
Amazon also reportedly limited online purchases of COVID-19 tests to 10 per customer, according to a statement obtained by CNN. Amazon did not immediately return Spectrum News' request for comment.
The limitations come as federal health officials urge Americans to consider adding a COVID-19 test as another mitigation layer, on top of getting vaccinated and wearing masks at indoor gatherings, to prevent transmission ahead of any holiday event.
“We want to make sure that people are continuing to wear their masks now, so that when they gather for the holidays, that they are all being safe and practicing the proper prevention strategies,” Dr. Walensky said Wednesday. “And then for that extra reassurance you could do a test, but that test is not essential as long as people have really been practicing those safe prevention measures ahead of time.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from Walmart.