When she woke up Monday with a stuffy nose and a headache, just two days before she was flying to visit her Dad for Christmas, Kathryn Albright knew she had to get tested for COVID-19.
But appointments at CVS and Walgreens were booked for days. A walk-in clinic in Abington was so crowded she had to wait outside in the December cold for an hour, just to check in.
“I’m trying to do the responsible thing here and get tested so that everyone is as safe as possible,” Albright said during a 3.5-hour wait for rapid test and results. “But I don’t know how much longer I can wait here. I’m really frustrated. As serious as this pandemic is, there has to be a better way of doing things.”
As COVID-19 cases surge and the highly contagious Omicron variant takes hold, a pandemic-weary public is scrambling to be tested before the holidays, snatching up scarce appointments and waiting in long lines for some peace of mind.
In the second winter of pandemic discontent, the countdown to Christmas is marked not by frantic searches for the perfect gift, but for tests indicating whether it’s wise to gather or travel at all.
“We lost my mom five years ago this past Saturday, so I tend to be really protective of my dad’s health,” said Albright, 38, who lives in Quincy and ultimately tested negative. “He’s 77, and I just didn’t want to take that chance.”
With other seasonal illnesses in the air and COVID-19 numbers at alarming levels, many people are erring on the side of caution, specialists said.
“There is more of an awareness that if you have symptoms of a respiratory virus, you cannot and should not chalk it up to a cold,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. “Plus, people are dealing with travel testing requirements and the desire to be responsible before visiting someone or after having traveled.”
Since the Omicron variant was first identified at the end of November, case numbers have surged in Massachusetts, said Jared Auclair, associate dean of professional programs and graduate affairs at Northeastern University’s College of Science. In the past week, the variant has caused about half of the positive cases a testing lab has confirmed on Northeastern’s campus.
“We’ve seen a drastic increase in the number of positives, probably twofold or threefold,” Auclair said.
In Boston, positive cases have increased 89 percent in the past two weeks, Mayor Michelle Wu said Monday. The city is now averaging 369 new cases per day.
That surge has prompted more people to seek out tests, despite the inconvenience.
“There is a true dramatic increase in COVID out there,” Doron said. “And when there is, the need for testing goes up.”
At Tufts Medical Center, demand for testing has soared. In October and November, hospital workers administered an average of 200 PCR tests a day. Last week, that number rose to 450, and on Friday, 550 people were tested.
Still, the levels have not reached those of last year, a hospital spokesman said.
“We are still a ways away from our daily high,” Jeremy Lechan said by e-mail.
Michael Beatty was among the masses who lined up outside Tufts on Monday, joining a line that snaked down the street. He had been in close contact with someone who tested positive on Friday and waited for 3.5 hours to put his mind at ease.
“I am traveling this week as well so I wanted to be very careful,” said Beatty, 33, an accountant who lives in Brighton.
Like Albright, he was careful not to blame the staff for the inconvenience but was dismayed such a basic precaution was so time-consuming.
“They’re doing the best they can. The people working there — it’s been almost two years of this. They have to be completely overwhelmed,” Beatty said. “But obviously the availability’s not where it needs to be, given the surge.”
Public health experts have urged people to take rapid tests immediately before gathering for the holidays, especially if they are interacting with relatives who are elderly or immunocompromised. In theory, that should be easier this year, since at-home COVID tests are available over the counter. But the tests can be hard to find on pharmacy shelves, leading residents to turn to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which seek genetic material of the virus from a sample, such as a nasal swab.
“The increased demand for PCR tests is a manifestation of the fact that home tests are not available in stores,” Doron said. “It’s a double whammy.”
CVS said in a statement that a surge of COVID-19 cases is increasing demand and that tests may be out of stock online but the company is working “around the clock to provide our local stores with ongoing inventory of the five over-the-counter at-home COVID-19 tests we offer.”
“In the event a local store experiences a temporary shortage, our teams have a process in place to rapidly replenish supply,” the company said.
At a CVS on Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford, pharmacists had to turn away a number of customers in search of at-home tests.
“All the time, it’s just every other person asking for one,” said the pharmacist, who declined to give her name. “As soon as we get them, they just sell right out.”
A local outbreak, and any possibility of exposure, can spur a rush on tests. When her 11-year-old daughter had a potential exposure at a Medford elementary school, Marie Gervais did a lot of searching before she found CareWell Urgent Care in Somerville.
“I called everywhere,” Gervais said. “They told me, ‘no.’’
Hannah Byrne had already made three stops in search of a walk-in appointment before the 25-year-old found it available at CareWell. But she had cut it close; she was boarding a flight for Scotland Monday afternoon.
Luck was on her side. By 2 p.m. she had a negative result in hand and was headed to the airport, hopefully by 3 p.m.
“I was definitely sweating a little bit,” Byrne said.
In Massachusetts, there are hundreds of testing sites, including 448 listed on the state’s locator map, according to a Department of Public Health spokesperson. Of those, 38 sites provide no-cost testing, including “Stop the Spread” and drive-through locations.
A spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services said that Massachusetts tests more than almost any other state in the country, with about 100,000 completed every day.
Jeremy Garczynski, a 35-year-old architect who lives in Melrose, has been testing at one of them weekly as a precaution; he doesn’t want to carry the virus to his in-laws, who are in their 70s, or his son, who is not yet 2 and too young for the vaccine. Until last month, he hadn’t had to wait in line. But the Saturday after Thanksgiving, he waited for over an hour. These days, the line is about 10 people deep.
“I want to keep my family safe and also the people that we interact with safe as well,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I wish that more people were doing regular testing.”
Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, said the rapid spread of the new variant proves that testing will be a necessary safeguard for some time.
“It’s like the long game in any sport,” Landrigan said. “You gotta stay alert until the game’s over, and the game’s not over yet.”
Danny McDonald, Tonya Alanez, and Tiana Woodard of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.