USPS to Deliver Free COVID Tests … Sometime Soon?

Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

When people pointed out last month that the Biden administration could help alleviate the COVID testing shortage by sending out free home antigen tests, it sprang into action. Well, actually, White House press secretary Jen Psaki initially mocked the idea of the government mailing out free COVID tests, which is the norm in some countries, when it came up at a press briefing on December 6. But after taking two weeks to consider the idea, President Biden was on it: He announced the government would purchase 500 million home rapid tests and send them out to any American who requested one.

So more than two weeks after the president’s announcement, where are we on that? Closer! Maybe? On Tuesday, the president said that, as promised, “the federal government is launching a website this month where you can get tests shipped to your home for free.”

When pressed that same day on when tests may actually start reaching Americans, Psaki said, “I don’t have an update on that at this point in time.”

Now there’s another update, but details are still scant. On Thursday night, the Washington Post reported the White House is “finalizing” plans to have the U.S. Postal Service deliver the free tests, according to “four people familiar with the plans.” These officials requested anonymity to discuss these efforts, though they were basically just repeating what Biden and Psaki had said two days earlier:

The administration will launch a website allowing individuals to request the rapid tests, those people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private planning sessions. Officials aim to begin shipping the kits by mid-January.

Test manufacturers and distributors seeking to provide a share of the 500 million tests have submitted proposals to the government, and the Biden administration on Thursday evening awarded its first contract toward the purchase, said a person with knowledge of the testing plan. A formal announcement on the effort could come as soon as next week.

There was one new detail about the logistics involved in getting this operation up and running in the next week or so (which, to be sure, is an arduous task):

The Postal Service is negotiating with its four labor unions to extend the seasonal workforce — the roughly 40,000 people brought in each year to help the agency work through a glut of holiday packages. The agency moved 13.2 billion pieces of mail and parcels between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

Sounds like the Postal Service is up to the challenge, though there is one potential wrinkle. Earlier this week, the Postal Service requested a 120-day exemption from Biden’s COVID vaccine and testing mandate for large employers, as the courts have yet to make a final ruling on its legality. In a letter, Deputy Postmaster Doug Tulino argued that implementing the mandate on schedule could lead to a “dramatic loss of employees,” which would have a “catastrophic impact” on USPS’s ability to deliver mail in a timely fashion. As Federal News Network explains:

USPS, in a letter dated Tuesday, told OSHA it would be “nearly impossible” to meet the deadlines outlined in its Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) under normal circumstances, but found them especially taxing to meet during its peak season, which runs from mid-October through January.

“Simply put, the Postal Service does not currently have adequate resources to meet the current ETS deadlines — especially during peak season,” USPS wrote in its letter.

USPS said implementing the ETS “is likely to result in the loss of many employees,” either through workers leaving the agency or facing discipline for non-compliance. The agency predicted the biggest drop-off in staffing would occur among temporary employees brought on to handle a surge in mail and packages during its peak season.

OSHA’s rules are set to take effect on January 10, but the agency has said it will not issue citations for violations until February 9. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on legal challenges to Biden’s vaccine mandates on Friday and may issue its ruling by the end of the month, per Axios.

So to recap, here’s what we know: By the end of January, you should be able to go on a government website and request one home COVID test. (Or maybe more? It’s still unclear.) Then, assuming this “catastrophic impact” on mail delivery does not come to pass, the USPS will ship it out. Finally — if you’ve managed to avoid falling ill with Omicron and getting diagnosed by other means — you can go ahead and use the heck out of whatever test shows up in your mailbox.

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USPS to Deliver Free COVID Tests … Sometime Soon?