For the first time, people across the United States can log on to a government website and order free COVID-19 home tests. But the push from the White House may do little to mitigate the omicron’s surge, and experts say Washington will need to do much more to fix the country’s long-troubled testing system.
The website, COVIDTests.gov, allows people to order four home tests per household, regardless of citizenship status, and have them delivered by mail. But tests won’t arrive for seven to 12 days, after omicron cases are expected to peak in many parts of the country.
The White House also announced on Wednesday that it would begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers. Both initiatives represent the type of mass government investment long seen in parts of Europe and Asia, but delayed in the United States.
“Should we have done more tests sooner? Yeah, but we’re doing more now,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday, recapping his first year in office.
Experts say the plan to distribute one billion tests is a good first step, but it must become a regular part of the pandemic response. In the same way that it has made vaccines free and plentiful, the government must use its purchasing power to ensure a steady supply of tests, they say.
“The rapid test manual should look exactly like the vaccine manual,” said Zoe McLaren, a health economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Those are two things that help reduce cases and keep COVID under control.”
A two-pack of at-home tests typically sell for over $20 in stores — if you can find one, amid the omicron-triggered rush to get tested. Since last week, insurance companies have been required to cover the cost of up to eight rapid home tests purchased from pharmacies or online retailers.
The four tests per household made available on the government website may not go very far in some homes.
Kristen Keymont, 30, is a voice and piano teacher who teaches online and shares a home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, with her partner and two other people. When one of her roommates tested positive just before Christmas, she and her partner spent $275 buying more than a dozen tests.
“One test each is fine, I guess,” she said. “I’m glad we have them, but we’ll always have to buy more if any of us are exposed.”
It would be better, she said, if requests were linked to each person rather than each residential address.
Additionally, some people living in multi-unit buildings have had their requests for tests rejected, with the website indicating that tests have already been ordered for that address. When these complaints surfaced on social media, people started sharing tips on how to enter apartment or unit numbers in a way that the website would accept.
There have been nearly 50 million visits to the test ordering website since it went live Tuesday, according to a federal analytics site.
The United States missed its initial rollout of government-led COVID-19 testing at the start of the outbreak and never really got back on track. While private companies now produce more than 250 million home tests per month, that’s still not enough to get most Americans tested frequently.
The Biden administration focused most of its early COVID-19 efforts on rolling out vaccines. As infections waned last spring, demand for testing plummeted and many manufacturers began closing factories. It wasn’t until September — after the delta surge was in full swing — that the Biden administration announced its first federal contracts designed to restart production of at-home tests.
Countries like Britain and Germany bought and distributed billions of tests soon after they became available last year.
“If you leave the manufacturers to their own devices, they’re just going to react to what’s going on right now,” said Dr. Amy Karger, a testing specialist at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “And then there’s not a lot of bandwidth if something surprising happens, like it did with omicron.”
Even with government intervention, the US faces a massive testing burden due to its population, which is five times larger than Britain’s.
The United States would need 2.3 billion tests per month for all teenagers and adults to test themselves twice a week. That’s more than double the number of home tests the administration plans to spread out over several months.
Dr. David Michaels, a former member of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, said the administration will likely have to ask for more federal money to fund testing for years to come.
“Congress was prepared to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure primarily to improve transportation. It’s infrastructure,” said Michaels, a professor of public health at George Washington University. “We need billions more in testing to save lives and keep the economy going.”
For now, testing will likely continue to be tight. And even the most optimistic proponents say the United States will have to carefully weigh where home testing may have the greatest benefit — for example, dispensing it to those most vulnerable to the virus.
“The fact is, we just don’t have that kind of mass testing capability in the United States,” said Dr. Michael Mina, scientific director of the eMed home testing service, who has previously called for the use of billion tests per month to crush the pandemic. “Now we need to think about how to use these tests strategically. We don’t just want to dilute them in the population.
Mina was until recently a professor at Harvard and informally advised federal officials on testing.
Mina and others acknowledge that the widespread use of rapid tests is not without drawbacks. Home test results are rarely shared with health authorities, giving an imperfect picture of the spread and scale of the pandemic.
More than 2 million test results a day are reported to US health authorities, but almost all of them come from tests processed in the laboratory. Some researchers estimate the actual number of daily tests to be around 5 million, including home testing.
Brumback reported from Atlanta.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.