Psaki pressed on whether at-home COVID tests will be ‘too late’ given Omicron surge

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Psaki pressed on whether at-home COVID tests will be 'too late' given Omicron surge

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday fended off questions about the slow rollout of President Biden’s plan to mass-mail 500 million at-home COVID-19 tests — including whether those tests will arrive too late to help with the record-breaking surge of new cases.

“A lot of experts are saying if Omicron follows the surge it did in South Africa, it could be peaking here as early as next week and probably start declining by the end of the month,” a reporter said at the daily briefing.

“Is there’s a concern that these tests are being provided too late when the worst is already behind us?”

Without directly answering, Psaki conceded that “we were not where we needed to be” in terms of testing supplies ahead of the holidays.

“We’re still not. What we’ve done is try to do this as quickly as possible through an expedited accelerated contracting process to ensure that tests are available for free to people across the country as quickly as possible,” Psaki said.

The White House reportedly rejected an expert plan in October to mass-distribute at-home rapid tests ahead of a possible holiday surge in COVID-19 cases. But Biden belatedly embraced the idea late last month as cases increased, though Psaki said the first contracts as part of the program aren’t expected to be signed until later this week.

Biden had planned to send out 500 million at-home testing kits.
Biden had planned to send out 500 million at-home testing kits.
EPA/Ting Shen / POOL

Psaki said that a website for people to request tests as part of the program won’t be launched until the government receives its first shipments of supplies from test-kit makers toward the end of January.

Psaki declined to say Tuesday if faster federal action to mass-mail at-home testing kits would have made the country better able to confront the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

“Is it fair to say if those free tests have been made available earlier — before the holidays, before people traveled and where contact and gatherings occurred — would we not be seeing the same numbers we are seeing today, would it have prevented some of that spread?” a reporter asked.

“I don’t know that we can make a prediction. That is a good question to ask the doctors,” Psaki said.

Retailers such as CVS Pharmacy have sold out of test kits at some locations and massive lines have formed at official test sites due to the more contagious Omicron variant, forcing FEMA to open federally run testing sites in hard-hit areas.

Psaki admitted "we were not where we needed to be" with sending out tests before the holidays.
Psaki admitted “we were not where we needed to be” with sending out tests before the holidays.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Psaki said “we’re not working on one channel” to address the nationwide test shortage.

“In retail stores across the country there are restocking shelves with tests. That is a good thing. We are continuing to open more federal testing sites as we have done in New York and different cities that have been hardest hit across the country. And we continue to have 20,000 free sites across the country,” she said.

Many details remain unknown about Biden’s plans to distribute 500 million test kits. It’s unclear how many test kits households will be able to request or when they will be mailed.

Experts from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the COVID Collaborative and other groups pitched a 10-page plan to White House officials on Oct. 22 that called for the production of 732 million tests per month for a “Testing Surge To Prevent [a] Holiday COVID surge,” Vanity Fair reported. The plan called for “Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year.” 

A reporter pointed out to Psaki that some tests may not arrive until after the Omicron variant peaks.
A reporter pointed out to Psaki that some tests may not arrive until after the Omicron variant peaks.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Biden denied spiking the idea — despite not adopting it when it was initially proposed. “We didn’t reject it,” Biden told The Post on the White House lawn last week as he departed for Delaware.

Preliminary data indicate that Omicron symptoms are less severe, particularly among vaccinated people who receive a “booster” shot, but the large volume of new cases is causing hospitalization rates to surge in New York and other hard-hit areas.

According to CDC data, a record of more than 828,000 US resident tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. The New York Times, which compiles its own case data, said more than 1 million Americans tested positive for the virus Monday. The true case load is believed to be much higher because many people are asymptomatic or don’t report the results of at-home tests.

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