WASHINGTON — Nearly half of the 500 million free COVID-19 tests the Biden administration recently made available to the public still have not been claimed as virus cases plummet and people feel less urgency to test.
In the pandemic’s midst, wild demand fluctuations have played a key role. This includes vaccines, hand sanitizers, and tests. The first day of the White House testing giveaway, January 1, COVIDtests.gov had received more than 45 million orders. Officials claim now that less than 100,000 requests per day come in to COVIDtests.gov for four quick tests free of charge, each delivered by U.S. Postal Service
However, the White House considers this program a first step in a larger, but more flexible, infrastructure for testing that can handle demand increases and be ready to respond when they are not. “We totally intend to sustain this market,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, testing adviser to the COVID-19 response team, told The Associated Press. “We know the market is volatile and will come up and down with surges in variants.”
According to the White House, Americans placed approximately 46% of all available orders for test packages.
Some experts say testing will be more crucial as mask requirements are less strict. “If infection control is still our priority, testing is central,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and commentator on the pandemic. “Four tests per household for one family will only last you one time. There should be enough tests for families to test twice a week.”
Inglesby says that all the pieces fall into place in order to make that happen.
Now, private insurers must cover 8 free quick tests per person per month. Medicare coverage will be available in the spring. Administration has been offering free tests at home through local libraries and clinics. The labs have increased their capacity to perform more precise PCR tests. Recently, the White House issued a call to industry asking for suggestions on ways to expand and sustain domestic testing throughout this year.
Wen believes that people need to be given a clear guideline for when and how frequently they should test. “Right now it is still unclear,” she said.
President Joe Biden’s pivot to testing came under duress as the omicron variant gained force just before Christmas. It was frustratingly difficult to find tests and costly. It is not surprising that the White House has been criticised for not providing enough help.
“There is no question some people found out they were positive from taking one of these tests and were able to keep other people from getting infected,” said Tim Manning, supply coordinator for the COVID-19 response team.
In mid-December with the omicron forecasts looking grimmer each day, White House officials started discussing ways to provide free testing for all who requested them. However, if government began siphoning off tests from the market that would only make it worse.
“A critical thing to us was that anything we did had to be done in a way did not create a shortage at retail to the general public,” Manning said.
The White House enlisted the Pentagon and parts of the Health and Human Services Department that had worked on the Trump administration’s vaccine development effort to distribute vaccines. The world was searched for suitable tests by logistics experts. It was the responsibility of the Postal Service to receive orders and then deliver them.
Hana Schank of the New America think-tank was an expert on technology and government projects. It was already possible to send mail from every place in the country, as the Postal Service already maintained a complete database.
“At the federal level the only people who have a database connected to a fulfillment engine would be the Post Office,” she said.
Manning stated that the project was completed in less than one month. “We said this is not online retail,” he said. “This is emergency response, so we have go to as fast as possible.”
To make sure it wasn’t just the tech savvy who would end up getting free tests, the administration targeted a share of deliveries to people in low-income areas. To spread the news, service agencies were partnered with the White House.
“We prioritized the processing of orders to the highest social vulnerability zip codes in the country,” testing adviser Inglesby said.
National Association of Community Health Workers is one of the many service organizations. Their members are responsible for helping people to navigate the health system. Denise Smith, executive director of the organization said that they were able to connect more than 630,000 individuals to COVIDtests.gov through their website.
Officials stated that around 20% to 25% have been given to those in need.
Now that demand is way down, it’s unclear what will happen to the White House giveaway program. One possibility is repeat orders.
Smith believes that groups such as hers should be able to take any surplus. “We know where the people are,” she said.
The program’s infancy is not yet known, but Lindsey Dawson from the Kaiser Family Foundation thinks that it could have a lasting legacy by familiarizing people with the testing process. “It may get someone comfortable with utilizing the tests, thinking about how they might use testing in their lives,” she said.
Savita Sharaf, a retiree from the Maryland suburbs outside the nation’s capital, said she ordered her free tests around the middle of January and got them in early February. She’s tried to conserve them, for added peace of mind. In the stores, she couldn’t find tests for less than $25.
“I’m so relieved because I can immediately test myself,” Sharaf said. “If we had a high vaccination rate, it would be a little easier to say let up on this program. But I feel we have to watch for the next month or two, to see what happens.”