White House Decides to Send Free COVID Tests to Americans After All

Where are all the free ones? Photo: Getty Images

As the Omicron wave washes over America, the Biden administration is at last making a serious effort to fill in the gaps of the country’s patchwork testing system, which has bedeviled many Americans again as cases surge around the country.

In a speech Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden announced the government’s purchase of 500 million at-home rapid tests that will be made available to Americans who request one. “I know you’re tired, and I know you’re frustrated. We all want this to be over. But we’re still in it,” Biden said on Tuesday. “We also have more tools than we had before. We’re ready, we’ll get through this.”

The turnaround comes two weeks after the White House panned the notion of sending Americans free tests, as is common in European countries. Biden will also announce new federal testing sites, with the first opening in New York City, as well as the deployment of 1,000 military personnel to hospitals across the U.S. already straining under the weight of COVID patients thanks to the Delta variant. He is also expected to emphasize the unvaccinated’s risk of severe illness and death.

While both antigen and PCR tests are widely available at clinics and pharmacies, much of the testing-site infrastructure is buckling under heavy demand with hours-long lines in some areas. And when it comes to at-home tests, the U.S. is badly trailing its European counterparts. Those tests, an important tool to measure virus spread especially amid holiday gatherings, are often pricey (as opposed to free in places like the U.K. and Germany) and difficult to find in many areas. The White House previously announced that insurance companies would reimburse customers for at-home tests, but that plan has been criticized for being too complicated.

In a viral exchange earlier this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki mocked a reporter for asking whether the administration would simply send free tests to every American household. Her response drew widespread scorn, though some noted that simply shipping off a small number of tests to every household would hardly be a pandemic cure-all. (In a bit of attempted cleanup on Monday, Psaki said she wished she had provided “additional context” in her answer.)

The new plan doesn’t quite do what some of the critics of her answer wanted; people will have to request a test on a yet-to-be-unveiled website. This approach may make more sense because not everyone wants or needs a test. Still, while the 500 million number is laudable, it is unlikely to be sufficient for those who require a steady supply. The dream of plentiful free tests distributed at gathering places throughout every American community remains just that: a dream.

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White House to Send Free COVID Tests to Americans After All