The Biden administration began permitting Americans who received free coronavirus testing earlier this winter to request a second round of four tests per home using the same United States Postal Service initiative that President Biden announced in January.
The move, which Mr. Biden vowed at last week’s State of the Union address, comes in the wake of a frenzy of interest in the program following its January premiere. At the time, case rates rose dramatically due to the Omicron variety, and tens of millions of families rushed to acquire free testing.
Now that supply exceeds demand, and viral cases are down precipitously, White House officials and public health specialists believe it will take major work to maintain interest in testing and guarantee that manufacturers continue to produce tests.
“Over Omicron, people were able to sell tests like hotcakes,” Gigi Gronvall, a testing expert at Johns Hopkins University, explained. “They were able to extort money from customers.
It is now when libraries are unable to give them out that the government must ensure that manufacturers do not withdraw, as happened before Delta.”
The availability of fast at-home diagnostics has increased dramatically in recent weeks. According to Mara Aspinall, a biomedical diagnostics expert at Arizona State University, federally approved manufacturers produced an estimated 535 million tests last month and 462 million this month.
She also serves on the board of directors of OraSure, which manufactures quick Covid tests.
Tests are now more readily available in pharmacies and various community locations. And, according to Dr. Tom Inglesby, the White House’s testing coordinator, the majority of American homes requested free tests via the Postal Service website over the previous seven weeks.
Over 275 million tests have been given to over 70 million households, with over 5,000 Postal Service personnel packing and distributing them at fulfillment centers.
However, Dr. Inglesby noted that government funding for at-home tests has lapsed, implying that lawmakers need to devote more resources to prepare for any outbreaks.
The government sought $22.5 billion from Congress as part of its new coronavirus response strategy, including testing funding.
“Testing does not occur automatically. We’ve seen this several times now: as demand for testing declines, industry correspondingly decreases its output,” Dr. Inglesby explained.
“As demonstrated with Omicron, we have a certain amount of time to react to a rush. We just had a few weeks to rescale manufacturing. And it cannot happen unless the industry is prepared.”
The Biden administration is still pursuing sufficient tests to satisfy Mr. Biden’s vow during the Omicron surge to acquire a billion for free distribution, not all of which will go to the Postal Service program, White House officials said. Dr. Inglesby stated that the federal government has begun building up a stockpile of tests.
“We are dedicated to maintaining the testing infrastructure in such a way that it does not lapse or deteriorate during calm periods,” Dr. Inglesby stated.
Late last year, public health experts and politicians chastised the White House for not purchasing additional at-home testing sooner, which they claimed would have helped fulfill demand when the Omicron variety became available late last year.
When Omicron spread, huge queues formed around the country as grocery and drugstore shelves became depleted of tests.
Since then, the Biden administration has acquired hundreds of millions of them from a handful of significant manufacturers, while more manufacturers have gained approval for their testing.
While some Americans received their tests within days of the Postal Service website becoming up, many received them weeks later, far after the Omicron wave’s peak. Dr. Inglesby said that the timing, which some experts claimed limited their usefulness, was necessary since manufacturers needed to scale up to deliver the tests.
He noted that the next batch of tests should be ready in a “quite short period,” he noted.
Public health officials stated that the tests had an essential role beyond identifying diseases regardless of their late arrival. Lindsey Dawson, a policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation who has studied quick test availability, said the mail program changed the impression of rapid testing as a scarce luxury to a common, accessible resource.
“Just making someone acquainted, as if to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t as terrifying as it seems.’ These are things I can have at home. I can utilize them for my purposes. I can use them on my child and navigate the environment more securely,'” she added of the widespread dissemination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to encourage at-home testing following viral exposure when suffering Covid symptoms or before indoor gatherings with vulnerable persons.
Other components of the Biden administration’s pandemic response will rely on testing, such as the “test to treat” initiative, which allows Americans to be tested for influenza at pharmacies, community health centers, and long-term care facilities and to receive antiviral medications on the spot if they test positive.
Meanwhile, some public health experts have warned that because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently modified mask requirements for much of the country, individuals may take more risks that might expose them to the virus, even where it is less prevalent.
Millions of Americans suffer from immunological weaknesses, and the youngest children remain vaccine ineligible.
In recent months, Christina Rondinone, a stay-at-home mother in Jupiter, Fla., has stockpiled tests from a neighboring drugstore and the Postal Service program.
She intends to request four further tests from the government before visiting her father, who suffers from lung and renal problems and is on dialysis, putting him in danger of severe Covid.
Ms. Rondinone, 35, compared the tests to a first-aid kit in her house; she added that she plans to begin using them after attending busy indoor events without a mask.
Ms. Aspinall, the manufacturing specialist, stated that during the Omicron wave, quick tests were employed up to seven times more frequently than P.C.R. testing every week – a significant increase.
However, she cautioned that producers would likely create fewer if demand did not increase significantly in the following weeks and months.
- Legends of Tomorrow Season 8 Has Begun, and This Is What We Know Thus Far
- Adult Swim Has Renewed ‘Birdgirl’ and ‘smiling Friends’ Season 2
She added that companies would have to maintain significant human commitments to maintain output levels, following a time they worked “24/7” to fulfill demand.
“No one wants to find themselves in the same place they were a year ago,” she explained. “Companies are more active than ever in managing their supply chains.”
Additionally, the federal government began forcing private health insurance to cover the expenses of at-home testing for its members in January.
Dr. Mark McClellan, a Duke University health policy expert who has examined the payment program’s launch, said it showed potential signals but that its duration is unknown at this time in the pandemic’s calmer phase.
Dr. Gronvall, the Johns Hopkins testing specialist, expressed hope that the recent surge in demand for Covid tests convinced manufacturers and legislators “that there is actual usefulness in having these at-home tests, and not only for Covid.”
“I would want to see additional testing,” she continued, “so that people can determine if they have the flu.”