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Mecklenburg County is in ‘bidding wars’ for COVID-19 tests

Claire Donnelly

Last week, Mecklenburg County expected a shipment of 25,000 at-home rapid COVID-19 tests. The delivery never arrived.

While the county was finalizing the purchasing paperwork, the tests had been sold to another buyer.

“We’re sort of in bidding wars,” said Dr. Raynard Washington, Mecklenburg County’s public health director. “Some of our shipments have been resold to a higher bidder and so that’s challenging.”

This is playing out across the country. Governments and private companies are competing to snag a limited supply of at-home tests as demand for testing surges with the omicron variant. The Biden administration recently announced it would purchase one billion at-home rapid tests.

“We’re also competing against CVS and Walgreens and Wal-Mart and everybody else whose tests are gone off their shelves,” said Jana Harrison, director of administrative services at the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

Harrison said there are a lot of hoops to jump through when the county buys tests. For example, it’s best if each total purchase is less than $250,000 — otherwise there are complicated rules about using federal grant money. (The tests, according to Harrison, are paid for by North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services using grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Plus, there are purchase orders that must be authorized and invoices that need to be paid — paperwork that Harrison said can slow down the buying process.

“This market is so tight and these tests are in such demand that I get the purchase order issued and they’ll (the vendor) call me back and they’ll say, ‘Oh no, we told you $10 for a set of two tests—now it’s $12,” Harrison said.

Harrison and others are working on ways to speed things up, like maybe using a credit card or wire transfer to purchase some tests, or developing an invoice or purchase order approval system that prioritizes COVID-19 tests.

“All government agencies are a little more bureaucratic,” Harrison said, chuckling. “But we’re working on it!”

Harrison said as of Thursday afternoon she had four purchase orders in the pipeline for large shipments of COVID-19 tests. She hoped to stagger them so that at least 25,000 tests would arrive in the county each week.

Copyright 2022 WFAE

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.