WASHINGTON — Americans will be able to request free rapid coronavirus tests from the federal government starting Wednesday, but the tests will take seven to 12 days to arrive, senior Biden administration officials said Friday.
The administration’s website for processing applications, covidtests.gov, was up and running on Friday, the latest sign of its efforts to speed up access to testing since the fast-spreading variant of Omicron sent numbers skyrocketing. of coronavirus cases.
But the delay in accepting orders and the delay in shipping means people are unlikely to receive the free tests before the end of January at the earliest. In some parts of the country, this may be after the peak of the current surge in cases.
President Biden said last month that his administration would purchase 500 million rapid at-home coronavirus tests and distribute them to Americans for free. On Thursday it announced plans to buy 500 million more tests, bringing the total to one billion. The administration has already contracted for 420 million tests.
Each household will be limited to four free tests. The Postal Service will handle shipping and delivery by first-class mail, officials said. Free testing will also be available at select community health centers, rural clinics and federal testing sites.
Separately, people with private insurance should be able to start claiming reimbursement for tests they buy themselves from Saturday, less than a week after the administration announced the new rule. Insurers will be required to cover eight home tests per person per month.
The administration is also creating incentives to encourage insurers to work with pharmacies and other retailers so 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 fully implement the system envisioned by the White House.
The expansion of testing capacity is part 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. be overwhelmed in at least two dozen states. . On Thursday, Mr Biden announced he was sending military medical personnel to six states to help overstretched hospital workers.
The White House was harshly criticized for not doing enough testing before Omicron’s surge. 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 buying them directly from manufacturers.
One of those critics, Dr. Mara Aspinall, a biomedical diagnostics expert at Arizona State University, called the president’s recent moves to expand testing an “important step forward” and an essential recognition of the importance of testing as a mitigation strategy.
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“You have to give them credit for doing this in less than a month,” she said, while noting that the seven-to-12-day timeline “isn’t ideal.”
Testing has been a challenge for the federal government since the early days of the pandemic. Supply chain shortages made them hard to find, and overcrowded labs took days to process them. Mr Biden, who came into office promising to ramp up testing, has made some progress in expanding the supply of rapid home tests. There were none available to American consumers when he took office.
But the Omicron wave has put intense pressure on the country’s testing capacity. Home tests have started flying off drugstore shelves and are now rare in many parts of the country. At the same time, some consumers do not know how to use them.
Administration officials on Friday sought to clear up some of that confusion, outlining three reasons why people should use home testing: They’re starting to show symptoms of Covid-19; they were exposed to someone who had tested positive for the virus five or more days earlier; or they plan to meet indoors with someone at risk for Covid-19 and want to make sure they are negative.
Beyond limited availability, cost has been a major barrier to accessing home testing. They’re expensive: about $12 each, or $24 for a two-pack.
The administration is committed to ensuring a fair distribution of the tests. A White House fact sheet said the government would place a high priority on providing testing to “the most socially vulnerable households and in communities that have experienced a disproportionate share of Covid-19 cases and deaths.” .