U.S. begins offering 1B free COVID tests, but many more needed
WASHINGTON » For the first time, people across the U.S. can log on to a government website and order free, athome COVID-19 tests. But the White House push may do little to ease the omicron surge, and experts say Washington will have to do a lot more to fix the country’s long-troubled testing system.
The website, COVIDTESTS. gov, allows people to order four at-home tests per household, regardless of citizenship status, and have them delivered by mail. But the 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 Wednesday that it will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers. Both initiatives represent the kind of mass government investments long seen in parts of Europe and Asia, but delayed in the U.S.
“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes, but we’re doing more now,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday, recapping his first year in office.
Experts say the plan to distribute 1 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 assure a steady test supply, they say.
“The playbook for rapid tests should look exactly like the playbook for vaccines,” said Zoe Mclaren, a health economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They’re both things that help keep cases down and help keep COVID under control.”
A home test two-pack commonly sells for more than $20 at the store — 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 at-home rapid tests bought at drugstores or online retailers.
The four tests per home made available through the government website may not go very far in some households.