WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly half of the 500 million free COVID-19 tests the Biden administration recently made available to the public remain unclaimed as virus cases plummet and people feel less the urgency to test.
Wild swings in demand have been a subplot of the pandemic, from vaccines to hand sanitizer to testing. On the first day of the White House testing giveaway in January, COVIDtests.gov received more than 45 million orders. Now, officials say fewer than 100,000 orders a day are coming in for the packages of four free rapid tests per household, delivered by the US Postal Service.
Still, the White House sees the program as a step toward a deeper, but more elastic, testing infrastructure that will adapt to increases in demand and remain on standby when cases decline. “We fully intend to support this market,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, testing advisor to the COVID-19 response team, told The Associated Press. “We know the market is volatile and will see ups and downs with variant increases.”
The White House says Americans have placed 68 million orders for test packs, leaving about 46% of test stock still available to order.
Testing will become more important as mask requirements are relaxed, some independent experts say. “While infection control is still our priority, testing is key,” said Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner and pandemic commentator. “Four tests per household for one family will only last you once. There should be enough tests that families can test twice a week.
Inglesby argues that the pieces fall into place to accommodate this.
Private insurers are now required to cover eight free rapid tests per person per month. Medicare coverage will begin in the spring. The administration has also made free home testing available at libraries, clinics and other community locations. The capacity for more precise PCR tests carried out by laboratories has been reinforced. The White House recently issued a request for ideas from industry on how to maintain and expand national testing for the remainder of this year.
Wen says people still need a guide on when to test and how often. “As of now, it’s still unclear,” she said.
President Joe Biden’s pivot to testing was constrained when the omicron variant gained momentum just before Christmas. The tests were extremely difficult to obtain and expensive. The White House is sensitive to criticism that the aid may have come too late.
“There’s no doubt that some people found out they were positive by taking one of these tests and were able to prevent other people from getting infected,” said Tim Manning, supply coordinator for the COVID-19 response team.
Around mid-December, with omicron projections getting grimmer by the day, White House officials began discussing how to make free tests available to anyone who wanted one. But if the government started siphoning tests off the market, it would only make the shortage worse.
“A key thing for us was that everything we did had to be done in a way that didn’t create a retail shortage for the general public,” Manning said.
The White House enlisted the Pentagon and parts of the Department of Health and Human Services that had worked on the Trump administration’s vaccine development effort to distribute vaccines. Logistics experts have scoured the world for available tests. The postal service has been designated to take orders and deliver them.
That part turned out to be a good call, said Hana Schank, an expert on government technology projects at the New America think tank. The postal service already had a database of every address in the country and the means of delivery.
“At the federal level, the only people with a database connected to an order processing engine would be the Post Office,” she said.
The project took less than a month to prepare, Manning said. “We said it’s not about online retail,” he said. “This is an emergency response, so we need to move as quickly as possible.”
To ensure that it wasn’t just tech-savvy people who would end up getting free tests, the administration targeted a share of deliveries to people in low-income areas. The White House has worked with service organizations to spread the word.
“We have prioritized fulfilling orders to the highest social vulnerability postcodes in the country,” test adviser Inglesby said.
One of the service groups was the National Association of Community Health Workers, whose members help people navigate the health care system. Executive Director Denise Smith said the group was able to use its website to link more than 630,000 people to COVIDtests.gov.
Overall, about 20% to 25% of the tests went to people in distressed areas, officials said.
Now that demand is down, it’s unclear what will happen to the White House gifting program. Allowing repeat orders is a possibility.
Smith says groups like his should get any surplus. “We know where people are,” she said.
Although the program is still in its infancy, Kaiser Family Foundation analyst Lindsey Dawson thinks its legacy may lie in making more people more familiar with the tests. “It can get someone comfortable with using testing, thinking about how they might use testing in their life,” she said.
Savita Sharaf, a retiree from suburban Maryland outside the nation’s capital, said she ordered her free tests around mid-January and got them in early February. She tried to keep them, for peace of mind. In stores, she couldn’t find tests for less than $25.
“I’m so relieved because I can immediately test myself,” Sharaf said. “If we had a high vaccination rate, it would be a little easier to say let go of this program. But I think we have to watch the next month or two, to see what happens.