US government to start accepting requests for free Covid tests next week

WASHINGTON — Americans can request free rapid coronavirus testing from the federal government starting Wednesday, but it will take seven to 12 days for the tests to arrive, senior officials in the Biden administration said Friday.

The administration’s website to process the requests, covidtests.gov, was up and running Friday, the latest sign of its efforts to ramp up access to tests since the rapidly spreading Omicron variant sent coronavirus cases soaring.

But due to the delay in accepting orders and the delay in shipping, it’s unlikely that people will receive the free tests until the end of January at the earliest. In some parts of the country, that may have been after the height of the current wave of cases.

President Biden last month said his administration would buy 500 million rapid home coronavirus tests and provide them to Americans for free. On Thursday, he announced plans to buy another 500 million tests, bringing the total to one billion. The administration has already signed contracts for 420 million tests.

Each household will be limited to four free tests. The postal service will handle shipment and delivery via first-class mail, officials said. Free tests will also be available at some community health centers, state clinics, and federal testing sites.

Separately, people with private insurance should be able to seek reimbursement for tests they buy themselves, starting on Saturday, less than a week after the administration announced the new rule. Insurers must cover eight home tests per person per month.

The administration also creates incentives to encourage insurers to partner 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 fully set up the system envisioned by the White House.

Expanding testing capacity is one of a series of steps the Biden administration has taken to accelerate its response to the Omicron variant, which arrived in the United States shortly after Thanksgiving and has pushed hospitals in at least two dozen states to the brink. be overwhelmed, step up . On Thursday, Mr. Biden announced that he would send military medical personnel to six states to provide relief for overwhelmed hospital personnel.

The White House has come under harsh criticism for not doing enough testing before the Omicron peak. Some public health experts have been calling on the government for months to make better use of coronavirus testing as a way to control the spread of the virus and create a guaranteed market for diagnostics by selling them directly to manufacturers. to buy.

One of those critics, Dr. Mara Aspinall, an expert in biomedical diagnostics 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.

“You have to give them credit for doing this in less than a month,” she said, noting that the seven to 12 day time frame “isn’t ideal.”

Testing has been a challenge for the federal government since the earliest days of the pandemic. Supply chain shortages made them hard to find and overloaded labs took days to process. Mr Biden, who took office with a promise to ramp up testing, has made some progress in expanding the range of rapid at-home testing. There were none available to US consumers when he took office.

But the wave of Omicron has put a huge strain on the country’s testing capacity. Home tests started flying off pharmacy shelves and are now scarce in many parts of the country. At the same time, some consumers are confused about its use.

Administration officials on Friday tried to clear up some of that confusion, specifying three reasons people should use home tests: they’re starting to get symptoms of Covid-19; they had been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus five or more days before; or they plan to meet indoors with someone at risk for Covid-19, and make sure they are negative.

In addition to limited availability, cost was a major barrier to accessing at-home testing. They are expensive: about $12 each, or $24 for a pack of two.

The administration has pledged to ensure a fair distribution of the tests. A White House fact sheet said the administration would give high priority to testing “households experiencing the greatest social vulnerability and in communities that have experienced a disproportionate share of Covid-19 cases and deaths.”

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