Nearly half of the 500 million free COVID-19 tests that the Biden administration recently made available to the public are still unsolicited as cases of the virus are plummeting and people feel the tests are less urgent.
Fluctuations in demand have been a side story of the pandemic, from vaccines to hand sanitizer to tests. On the first day of test distribution at the White House in January, COVIDtests.gov received more than 45 million orders. Now, officials say there are fewer than 100,000 orders per day for packages of four free rapid household tests delivered by the US Postal Service.
However, the White House sees the program as a step towards a deeper but more flexible testing infrastructure that can handle surges in demand and stay on standby when cases decline. “We are fully committed to supporting this market,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, Testing Advisor for the COVID-19 Response Team, told The Associated Press.
Testing will become more important as mask requirements are relaxed, some independent experts say. “If infection control continues to be our priority, testing takes center stage,” said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former health commissioner and pandemic commentator. “Four home tests for one family are only enough for one time. There should be enough tests so families can get tested twice a week.”
Inglesby claims that things are falling into place to accommodate this.
Private insurance companies are now required to pay for eight free rapid tests per person per month. Medicare coverage will begin in the spring. The administration also provides free home tests in libraries, clinics and other public places. Capacity has been built to conduct more accurate PCR tests in laboratories. The White House recently reached out to industry asking for ideas on how to support and expand internal testing before the end of this year.
Wen says people still need guidance on when and how often to get tested. “It’s still unclear right now,” she said.
President Joe Biden’s turn to testing has come under pressure as the omicron option gained momentum just before Christmas. The tests were annoyingly difficult and expensive. The White House is sensitive to criticism that aid came too late.
“There is no doubt that some people knew they were positive by taking one of these tests and were able to prevent other people from being infected,” said Tim Manning, supply coordinator for the COVID-19 response team.
Around mid-December, with Omicron forecasts getting bleaker by the day, White House officials began discussing how to make free tests available to everyone. But if the government starts pumping tests out of the market, that will only exacerbate the shortage.
“It was critical for us that everything we did had to be done in a way that didn’t create a retail shortage for the general public,” Manning said.
The White House has enlisted the support of the Pentagon and divisions of the Department of Health and Human Services that have been working on the Trump administration’s efforts to develop a vaccine for vaccine distribution. Logistics experts scoured the world for available tests. The postal service had to take orders and deliver them.
According to Hana Shank, an expert on government technology projects at the New America think tank, this part was successful. The Postal Service already had a database of all addresses in the country and means of delivery.
“At the federal level, the only people who have a database connected to the fulfillment engine will be the post office,” she said.
According to Manning, the project took less than a month to prepare. “We said that this is not online trading,” he said. “This is an emergency response, so we must act as quickly as possible.”
To make sure that more than just tech-savvy people get the free tests, the administration targeted some of the supplies to people in low-income areas. The White House worked with service organizations to spread the word.
“We have prioritized order processing for the most socially vulnerable ZIP codes in the country,” test consultant Inglesby said.
One service group was the National Association of Public Health Workers, whose members help people navigate the health system. Chief Executive Denise Smith said the group was able to use its website to connect more than 630,000 people to COVIDtests.gov.
Overall, between 20% and 25% of the tests were done on people in disadvantaged areas, officials said.
Now that demand has plummeted, it’s unclear what will happen to the White House gift program. Allowing repeat orders is one possibility.
Smith says groups like hers should get any surplus. “We know where people are,” she said.
Although the program is still in its infancy, analyst Lindsey Dawson of the Kaiser Family Foundation believes its legacy may be to introduce testing to more people. “Someone may feel comfortable using tests and think about how they can use testing in their lives,” she said.
Savita Sharaf, a retired Maryland suburb outside the nation’s capital, said she ordered free tests around mid-January and received them in early February. She tried to keep them, for extra peace of mind. In stores, she could not find tests for less than $25.
“I feel so relieved because I can test myself right away,” Sharaf said. “If we had a high vaccination rate, it would be a little easier to drop this program. But I feel like we need to wait for the next month or two to see what happens.”