An employee of the Rapid City Public Library hands out free COVID-19 tests. (Courtesy of Rapid City Public Library)
Mellette County Emergency Manager Karen O’Brien has hundreds of unused, free COVID-19 tests sitting in a box in her office.
With COVID-19 still circulating across South Dakota and the country, she’d gladly hand them out to any residents of the rural, south-central South Dakota county who want them. But they expired in November, according to the box.
She nearly threw them away — along with thousands of taxpayer dollars — until South Dakota Searchlight informed her that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration extended the expiration dates on the tests through August.
The tests were part of the state Department of Health’s January 2022 initiative to distribute 1 million free Flowflex Antigen COVID-19 tests across South Dakota, paid for with $7 million in federal funding. The state sent the tests to pharmacies, schools, public libraries, county courthouses, airports, food banks and other publicly accessible locations.
While distributors like O’Brien say the initiative was a public benefit to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, they also said they received little direction from the state on how to distribute the tests, were not informed that the tests’ shelf life was extended by nearly a year and were not told they could request more tests once they ran out.
The state Department of Health does not have a public list of local distribution sites for people to find tests. It is unknown if other local distributors have mistakenly thrown away seemingly expired tests that are actually still authorized for use.
Other sites, like the Rapid City Public Library, were recently handing tests out “by the bag” to companies and individuals — hoping to distribute over 1,200 tests before their printed expiration dates, said Laurinda Tapper, who handles public relations at the library.
“We knew that they were expiring in December, so we wanted to get them into the hands of people who were going to use them before we couldn’t distribute them any longer,” Tapper said.
Tapper was informed by a library worker just weeks before the printed expiration date arrived that the shelf life was extended.
The tests the library rushed to hand out don’t expire until September.
Feds, state still offering free COVID-19 tests
ACON Laboratories, which developed the Flowflex COVID-19 Antigen Home Test, announced in mid-November that its test shelf-life was extended by the FDA from 12 months to 21 months after testing product stability.
Future shelf-life expiration date extensions will be shared as they become available, the company added in its news release.
While some of the local distribution sites handed out the majority of their tests throughout the year, there’s no easy way to know how many of the tests have gone unused or were thrown away, since many of the sites passed them on to other organizations to distribute, such as churches, food banks or fire stations.
State Department of Health spokesperson Kieran Tate did not say how many tests have not been distributed yet, but said the state “maintains an inventory of COVID-19 test kits” and will “continue to distribute them until they are gone.”
“While the initial distribution goal of 1 million test kits was planned as a one-time event, DOH continues to partner with healthcare providers, K-12 schools, and other groups to make COVID-19 tests available throughout South Dakota,” Tate said in an emailed statement.
The department will send more test kits to counties, businesses, municipalities and schools at their request, which can be done by emailing [email protected]. South Dakotans can also access free COVID-19 testing through the DOH website.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is once again offering free, mail-order, at-home COVID-19 rapid tests. The program had ended amid an ongoing stalemate with Congress over additional funding to address the virus.
The program will allow each household to order four free COVID-19 tests as part of the White House’s plans to try to tamp down the number of diagnoses this winter amid an increase in coronavirus, flu and RSV.
The free COVID-19 test kits can be ordered through COVIDTests.gov or by calling 1-800-232-0233 between 8 a.m. and midnight Eastern.
Program gave little direction to distribution centers
Demand for the 1 million free tests in South Dakota was high at some of the distribution centers early in 2022, when COVID-19 was near its peak. But demand quickly dwindled into the spring and summer months.
Rapid City Public Library received about 17,000 tests in February 2022 and managed to whittle them down to 1,200 by early December. South Dakota State University started with about 15,000 and has about 7,500 left to distribute to campus staff, faculty and students.
Vermillion Public Library received over 2,000 tests, and Mellette County received somewhere between 600 and 900 tests, O’Brien estimated. The demand wasn’t that high for tests in the rural South Dakota county, she added, which is why she nearly threw out hundreds of “expired” tests in December.
“We should maybe have gotten 100 or so tests to start with, and then if we were running low we’d get more later instead of giving everybody so many to start with,” O’Brien said. “Fifty probably would have been enough for our county because there’s not that many people here, and if we needed more we could just ask for more.”
But even with thousands of tests being distributed right away, several distribution sites didn’t realize they could request more from the state, they said. The Vermillion Public Library gave tests to a nearby community center that quickly ran out, and then relied on a box of tests handed down from the University of South Dakota instead of asking the state Department of Health for more, Library Director Daniel Burniston said.
One of the sites that did order more tests throughout the year was Brookings County Emergency Management. Emergency Manager and County Development Director Robert Hill requested three more shipments after his original supply ran out in early 2022. He plans to request more in the next few weeks.
“I didn’t know if we could order more at first,” Hill said. “But I still had people contacting us about the tests, so I went through the Department of Health and they said, ‘by all means, if the public wants them and you have a way of giving them out, we’ll assist the public.’”
He’s distributed more than 3,300 kits since February — over 1,000 of which he requested from the state throughout the year.
Free at-home tests benefit to the community, distributors say
Overall, distributors throughout the state believe the program was a worthwhile investment of taxpayer money and are supportive of making public health and safety measures more affordable and accessible to South Dakotans.
Free tests make it easier for people to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Burniston said, and keeping them at public places like libraries is more accessible than at pharmacies or other offices with more limited hours. The Vermillion library is open seven days a week, typically until 9 p.m.
The same is true for the Rapid City Public Library, which is typically open until 6 or 7 p.m.
“I think the most important thing about the COVID-19 tests is the access,” Tapper said. “Libraries offer access to technology and knowledge. How many of the people who use the library in Rapid City don’t have $10 to get a test or the means to get to Monument Health to take a test? This was a value to our community.”
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the state and becomes a seasonal disease alongside RSV and influenza, continuing to provide free at-home COVID-19 test kits could be a benefit, said Katie Wick, clinical initiatives manager with the City of Sioux Falls Health Department. The department received two boxes each containing 288 tests from the state, as well as thousands more free test kits from the federal government.
“I think the public would still take advantage of those tests and it might ease the burden on the health care system as well,” Wick said. “Instead of people making an appointment or going through a drive- thru, they can take advantage of these kits.”
The state has not said if it will continue funding programs like this in the future.
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