The United States is facing a COVID-19 testing crisis heading into the holidays as the new Omicron variant has become dominant in new cases, and many drug stores have run out of rapid antigen tests.
There have been long lines for PCR tests stretching around the block in some American cities including New York, as well as a lack of tests in some pharmacies, all while the Biden administration made a major U-turn this week when it announced the federal government would purchase half a billion tests and distribute them free to those who want them.
Just three weeks ago White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the idea of providing free at-home tests to Americans, citing the potential cost and defending the administration’s policy to allow the 150 million Americans with private health insurance to claim reimbursement for home COVID-19 tests.
Under Biden’s winter COVID-19 plan, people without health insurance can avail themselves of free take-home tests « at thousands of convenient locations. »
At a press briefing on December 6, Psaki was asked if the U.S. should follow the example of other countries and provide at-home tests free of charge.
Psaki said the administration had « quadrupled the size of our testing plan, we’ve cut the cost significantly over the past few months, and this effort ensures you’re able to get your tests refunded, and means 150 million Americans will be able to get free tests. »
When she was asked whether the system of reimbursement through health insurance was too complex, she appeared to mock the idea of sending Americans free tests.
« Should we just send one to every American? » Psaki asked, adding: « Then what, then what happens if you, if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that? »
On December 7, Psaki again defended the administration’s policy of « ensuring that everyone in America has access to free testing, whether at a doctor’s office, pharmacy, community testing site, or, now, at home. »
She said the administration’s policy was « not to send everyone in the country a test just to send—to have millions of tests go unused where we know others can make use of them. »
Since then however, the Omicron variant has become the dominant variant in new COVID-19 cases, accounting for 73.2 percent of new cases in the week ending December 18, and the administration has reversed course.
During his interview with ABC News on Wednesday, David Muir asked Biden about the long lines for tests and a lack of supply.
« If you go to the pharmacy, we hear this over and over again, empty shelves, no test kits. Is that a failure? » Muir asked.
« I don’t think it’s a failure, » Biden said. « You could argue that we should have known a year ago, six months ago, two months ago, a month ago. »
However, the president also said he had wished thought about ordering 500 million tests « two months ago. »
Nonetheless, Biden has been stressing the need to ramp up testing since he came to office in January, including testing in Americans’ homes. On March 11, he said: « We continue to work on making at-home testing available. »
The administration’s initial plan for free at-home testing involved distributing tests to health centers, community centers, and other locations where Americans without insurance could collect tests, coupled with reimbursements for those with insurance.
The 500 million free at-home tests may not begin to be available until January, when the website to order them is expected to go live. A report from The New York Times on Wednesday noted that the administration had not yet signed a contract to purchase the tests.
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