Senior Biden administration officials said Friday that Americans will be able to request free, rapid coronavirus tests from the federal government starting Wednesday, but that the tests will take seven to 12 days to arrive.
The department’s website for processing applications, covidtests.gov, was up and running Friday, in the latest sign of its efforts to ramp up access to testing since the rapidly spreading Omicron variant drove up coronavirus case numbers.
But delays in accepting orders and delays in shipping mean people are unlikely to receive the free tests until the end of January at the earliest. In some parts of the country, this may be after the peak of the current increase in cases.
President Biden said last month that his administration would buy 500 million at-home rapid coronavirus tests and distribute them to Americans free of charge. On Thursday, he announced plans to buy an additional 500 million tests, bringing the total to one billion. The department has already contracted 420 million tests.
Four free tests will be assigned to each family. Officials said the Postal Service will handle shipping and delivery via first-class mail. Free tests will also be available at some community health centers, rural clinics and federal testing sites.
Separately, people with private insurance should be able to start looking for reimbursement for tests they buy themselves starting Saturday, less than a week after the administration announced the new rule. Insurance companies will be required to cover eight home tests per person per month.
The department is also creating incentives to encourage insurance companies to work with pharmacies and other retailers so that people can be reimbursed at the time of purchase, as is often the case with prescription drugs. But some insurers say it will likely take weeks to prepare the full system envisioned by the White House.
Increasing testing capacity is one of a series of steps the Biden administration has taken to ramp up its response to the Omicron variant, which arrived in the United States shortly after Thanksgiving and pushed hospitals to the brink of collapse in at least two dozen states. . On Thursday, Biden announced that he would send military medical personnel to six states to provide relief to exhausted hospital workers.
The White House has faced harsh criticism for failing to conduct adequate testing before Omicron’s increased activity. Some public health experts have for months been calling on the government to make better use of coronavirus tests as a way to control the spread of the virus, and to create a guaranteed market for diagnostics by purchasing them directly from manufacturers.
One of those critics, Arizona State University biomedical diagnostics expert Dr. Mara Aspinal, called the president’s recent moves to expand testing an “important step forward,” and a fundamental acknowledgment of testing’s importance as a mitigation strategy.
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“You have to give them credit for getting this done in less than a month,” she said, noting that the seven to 12-day time frame is “not ideal.”
Testing has been a challenge for the federal government since the early days of the pandemic. Shortages in the supply chain made it difficult to access, and overburdened laboratories took days to process. Mr. Biden, who took office promising to ramp up testing, has made some progress in expanding the supply of rapid home tests. Nothing was available to American consumers when he took office.
But the Omicron wave has put a severe strain on the country’s testing capacity. At-home tests started flying off pharmacy shelves and are now rare in many parts of the country. At the same time, some consumers are confused about how to use it.
Administration officials sought to clear up some of that confusion Friday, outlining three reasons why people are using the tests at home: they start showing symptoms of Covid-19; have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus five or more days ago; Or they plan to congregate indoors with someone who is at risk of contracting Covid-19, and they want to make sure they are negative.
Besides limited availability, cost has been a major barrier to accessing the tests at home. They’re pricey: about $12 each, or $24 for a pack of two.
The administration has pledged to ensure fair distribution of tests. A White House fact sheet said the government would place a high priority on testing “families with the highest levels of social vulnerability and in communities that have seen a disproportionate proportion of Covid-19 cases and deaths.”