A new website meant to allow Vermonters to order rapid COVID tests directly to their homes was inundated with requests upon its launch Wednesday morning, illustrating a continued high demand for the tests amid the Omicron surge.
Not long after the site went live at 10 a.m., it was asking some requestors to try again within the next hour to due "exceptionally heavy demand." The messages prompted a tweet from the Vermont Department of Health directing people having trouble with the website to keep trying.
By noon, about half of the 350,000 tests had been claimed and several thousand people were in the process of making orders, according to Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott. The remaining tests were gone by 2:45 p.m.
"We’re hopeful that people will take advantage of them, and we're going to continue to work to acquire more supply," he said.
The website is part of a pilot program between the State of Vermont and the National Institutes of Health with a goal of delivering 500,000 rapid test kits to households across the state.
State officials have described it as an attempt to test drive the effectiveness of the home delivery model before Vermont rolls out a broader program sometime this year. The state also plans to share some of its lessons with the federal government, which is planning to roll out its own program in the coming weeks.
The 350,000 tests in the initial phase represent enough for about 87,500 separate orders; each order has two kits containing two tests, for a total of four. Orders were limited to one per household and were expected to arrive within a week or two.
The state is still waiting to receive an additional 150,000 tests to complete the pilot program and will distribute those at a later date, whether through another online-only drop or perhaps in conjunction with in-person locations, Maulucci said.
"We’ll be able to evaluate how today went, compare it to previous efforts and make decisions on how we can move forward," he said.
Scott urged people to have "clear expectations" about the capacity and purpose of the program when announcing it last week, warning that the tests would go very quickly. “While our primary objective is to get tests into the field as efficiently as possible, we are also assessing how well the system works,” he said in a news release.
The message was far more direct than what state officials said when announcing a series of in-person rapid test pickup sites in the days before and after the holidays. That initiative, which ultimately distributed about 100,000 rapid tests, resulted in some Vermonters enduring long lines in frigid temperatures, only to go home empty-handed after the sites ran out of tests.
In addition to the online ordering program, the Scott administration will be sending another 120,000 rapid tests to childcare programs this week, while many more thousands will be sent to schools as they adjust to new protocols for mitigating COVID-19 spread in classrooms that shifts testing responsibility from school personnel to families.
The pilot program coincides with an alarming spike in COVID cases. Fueled by holiday gatherings and the incredibly infectious Omicron variant, Vermont has been averaging 1,740 cases daily over the last week, a time period that includes a record-breaking single day total of 2,975 cases set on January 7.
The state has reported more than 15,000 cases since January 1 — nearly as much as the entire first year of the pandemic combined. Equally troubling: The number of people hospitalized remains high. Eighty-five people were hospitalized with COVID in Vermont on Wednesday. ICUs were caring for 27 patients — the highest that figure has been in over a month.