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The struggle is real: How to find a rapid COVID-19 test in East Tennessee

After exploring the options, it appears locally owned pharmacies are your best bet for a same-day test.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — With the Omicron COVID-19 variant continue to infect people across the nation, pharmacies have become a major part of stopping the spread as providers of COVID-19 tests. But right now in East Tennessee, it's hard to find a rapid test when you need one — the day you’re feeling sick.

Pharmacists at Walgreens at the intersection of Kingston Pike and Lovell Road said it’s been tough to get a same-day appointment. On top of that, they’re sold out of home testing kits.

Several Walgreens and CVS locations in Knoxville, Maryville, Sevierville and Newport said the same thing. The CVS on Emery Road in Powell said they had a couple left on the shelves at 4 p.m. Wednesday, but did not say if they expected them to sell quickly.

Instead of making the trip or waiting on hold, you can use both companies’ websites or apps to see their inventory of COVID-19 home testing kits at different stores. However, the pharmacy at the CVS in Powell said it’s not always accurate because of how quickly their supply is fluctuating.

If you're still struggling to find a home COVID-19 test, it might be time to let the inventory apps do the scouting for you. There are websites and apps that track home tests. NowInStock.net, ZooLert.com, HotStock.io and BrickSeek are a few.

These websites keep up with inventory reports in the area. The HotStock app will also send push alert notifications to your phone if you set it to, letting you know if there’s been a change in the stock of tests around your area.

This testing frenzy has many questioning: why are rapid tests for COVID-19 in such short supply? Much like the mask shortage at the height of the pandemic, more people need them as the number of cases of the Omicron variant rises rapidly.

Dr. Tyler Dougherty is a pharmacist at Clinton Drug Store. President Joe Biden's plan to grant two COVID-19 home tests per U.S. citizen might be causing a supply chain issue, he said.

Companies that would normally supply to these stores and healthcare providers could now be focusing their efforts on supplying to the federal government instead, he said.

"These companies that would be sending them to health care providers, that supply is now going to be shifted to at-home capabilities,” Dougherty said.

There are multiple factors. Omicron is spreading at an exponential rate. On top of that, some folks who don't have symptoms are being required to test.

"It's not just people who are symptomatic. It's also people who want to go to a concert, wanting to get on a plane, go to another city," Dougherty said.

But for those who are showing symptoms, time plays a crucial role in stopping the spread.

"A lot of places are out, and I think from your experience, you were able to find tests more readily available in local businesses," he said.

Out of the three locally-owned pharmacies, testing was being offered and no appointment was needed. Customers can get a rapid test any time they wanted, but at certain pharmacies, convenience comes at a cost.

"Unfortunately, insurance will not pay for a rapid test from us," said Dr. Jamie Price with Belew Drugs.

She said Belew Drugs won't turn any patient away. However, it costs $100 out-of-pocket. They do provide a form people can submit to personal insurance companies to see if they'll provide reimbursement.

The same thing goes for the home tests people can find in the store. Starting Saturday, if you purchase a COVID-19 home-test kit, you should save the receipt. You’ll be paid back a portion of what you paid, if not the entirety.

"A lot of pharmacies aren't considered health care providers by the insurance companies, so it's tough," Dougherty said.

He said it’s important to call your local pharmacy to find out if they can bill insurance.

There are quite a few in East Tennessee that can't bill insurance companies for services. For example, Belew Drugs, Clinton Drug, and Balen. They accept walk-ins but if you don’t have insurance, there's no chance of getting a free test at these locations, according to Dougherty.  

When it comes to getting a free test without an appointment, "the best thing to do is call your locally owned pharmacy," he said.

There are more options though. For example, the Knox County Health Department and North Shore Clinical both provide tests.

North Shore has testing sites posted up, ready to test folks across East Tennessee. They are on-site at their five locations across Knoxville and Pigeon Forge from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. waiting for folks to drive in.

Operational Manager Tony Aqquad said it’s free and patients don’t need an appointment.

“We’re here just to help the community,” he said.

You should prepare to wait a little while, though. The number of folks lining up in their vehicles to get tested has spiked, he said.

He said insured or not, these testing sites are free. 

"Two weeks ago, we had 10 or 15 people that would come through. Now, we’re seeing well over 100 each day," he said.

Navigate their website for testing site locations, here.

If you are not sick and need a COVID-19 test to travel or attend an event, it’s advised you plan ahead when it comes to getting your test. It’s simple to order a self-test online through the apps mentioned above. If you’d like a healthcare worker to provide your test, book an appointment 24 - 48 hours ahead of time.

The East Tennessee Children's Hospital also announced on Thursday that all of its urgent care centers had non-rapid PCR tests for children, as well as locations in Knox County.

If you're seeking COVID-19 testing for your child, all of our Urgent Care Centers are available for PCR (Non-Rapid)...

Posted by East Tennessee Children's Hospital on Thursday, January 13, 2022

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