They were stray remarks in defense of Joe Biden, but Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s words nevertheless caused an online firestorm yesterday. “I think the president decided we’re in a good place right now,” Gillibrand said while touring the New York State Fair. “We’ve really gotten over the hump of COVID. I certainly have been able to buy home test kits in CVS any time I go.”
Gillibrand, a Democrat, was offering an explanation for why Congress had decided to stop funding a program that sent free COVID tests to every American household that requested them. Launched after former Biden press secretary Jen Psaki initially derided the idea, the initiative ended up delivering hundreds of millions of tests at no charge. The Biden administration has claimed it will make more free tests available if funding from the Democrat-controlled Congress arrives, but few in the White House or on Capitol Hill seem to care all that much either way. COVID is still killing hundreds in the U.S. every day, but after two and a half years, it’s far from the threat it once was, and Americans no longer rank the pandemic high on their list of national concerns. There is a political imperative to move on.
On one hand, this is understandable. The fringe that demands new lockdown measures and mandates to contain the spread of COVID do not understand that the virus is endemic and there is virtually no way now to halt new variants from circulating. Most nations outside of China have abandoned strict and unsustainable lockdown measures. Certain localities in the U.S. have maintained some COVID mandates and protocols, as with New York City’s employer mandate for vaccinations, but many have ditched them altogether. Government can only do so much, particularly in the era of the BA.5 variant, which is remarkably transmissible and easily infects the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. The latest CDC guidelines reflect this reality.
It’s also true that the federal government’s COVID focus is best trained on better vaccine technology and better treatment access. The Biden administration should be urging pharmaceutical giants to deliver on the original promise of the vaccine: to halt transmission as much as possible and make breakthrough infections rare. More treatments should be available for those who contract COVID. Many American deaths could be prevented if more antiviral therapies could be easily acquired at local pharmacies and hospitals.
But in the meantime, it remains a travesty that cheap COVID tests aren’t more widely available. Gillibrand’s comments were irksome because she seemed blissfully unaware that many Americans have to pay more than $20 for individual tests — fine for a U.S. senator who is married to a venture capitalist, but not ideal for most Americans. Reimbursement through health insurance is possible, but not everyone has health insurance, and those who do don’t want to be confronted with more bureaucratic hurdles. What’s easier — getting a free test mailed to you or paying for a rapid test at a pharmacy and then hoping insurance compensates you later? For large families already grappling with high food and fuel costs, the calculation is daunting. A family of four with COVID that needs to test at least several times to be sure they are COVID-free can easily spend hundreds of dollars at a pharmacy. In much of the world, such barriers don’t exist. Even the United Kingdom, which ended free COVID tests for the general public, still offers free tests for health-care workers and vulnerable members of the population.
The message Congress and Biden are sending now is that testing no longer matters much, even though it remains perhaps the only way to ensure more people aren’t exposed to COVID — and even if another bad winter surge could mean tests are both expensive and scarce. America’s testing regime, under both Donald Trump and Biden, has always been consistently mediocre or worse. Parts of the country can’t access cheap or free testing at all. Some places have done better than others: one of the few successes of New York’s COVID strategy was the opening of free, city-run testing clinics, where no one had to provide proof of insurance to receive a rapid test and a more accurate PCR. But Mayor Eric Adams, for reasons unclear, has now shuttered many of these sites, a decision that may prove disastrously shortsighted. New Yorkers who want to test to ensure they can safely gather for the holidays will have far fewer options to test. Many won’t bother at all.