WASHINGTON — Want a free COVID-19 rapid test from the federal government? Then hurry up and wait.
The White House announced Friday that its website for Americans to request the coveted tests will go live Jan. 19 — before acknowledging that orders will “typically” ship 7-12 days after they’ve been placed.
That lag time, followed by additional days to deliver the packages, means people requesting tests (up to four per address) will have to submit their orders before they experience symptoms. It’s also conceivable that Americans could undergo a full viral cycle in the time it takes to order and receive one test.
In addition, it is unclear if the first kits will arrive before Omicron cases begin to drop substantially across the country.
The launch of COVIDTests.gov will be closely watched by President Biden’s critics, who have faulted him for rejecting an expert proposal to mass-distribute free tests to households before Christmas to prevent a winter surge of infections.
A bungled rollout of the website or subsequent distribution issues could badly hurt Biden’s already-damaged credibility on managing the pandemic.
Another high-profile website rollout, the Obama-Biden administration’s Healthcare.gov, turned into a technical and public relations fiasco in 2013 despite massive investments of time and money in its creation.
The launch of COVIDTests.gov comes four weeks and two days after the White House first briefed reporters on the plan Dec. 20, and it will happen the same day Biden hosts his second solo press conference at the White House.
The US Postal Service will manage the packaging and delivery logistics for the mass-distribution drive. Biden said earlier this week that he would boost the initiative from 500 million to 1 billion tests.
Retailers such as CVS Pharmacy remain sold out of test kits at some locations and massive lines continue to be seen at official test sites, forcing FEMA to open federally run testing sites in hard-hit areas two years into the pandemic.
Some major cities along the East Coast, including Boston, Washington, New York and Philadelphia, are reporting slight drops in new infections. Officials say that may hint that Omicron cases are about to drop rapidly, as seen in other countries such as South Africa.
Biden embraced the idea of mass-distributing the rapid tests late last month as the milder, but more contagious Omicron variant caused surges in coronavirus infections due to large numbers of breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated people.
The White House reportedly rejected an expert plan in October that would have implemented the distribution plan before the fall and winter wave of cases hit.
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 “Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year,” Vanity Fair reported.
Biden has 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 month. A White House official later argued that Biden was telling the truth and that “the characterization of ‘rejection’ is not an accurate reflection of a productive meeting, and in fact, we are implementing many measures that were discussed as capacity now allows us to do.”
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday at a Senate hearing that the Biden administration had contracted for just 50 million test kits so far out of the initially announced 500 million.
Republicans and Democrats alike have blasted the Biden administration for not doing more to maintain the high production capacity for rapid tests. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has noted that companies like Abbott Labs, which has two manufacturing plants in her home state, laid off hundreds of workers in summer 2021 in response to declining demand.
“The money was there. The manufacturers were ready. The employees were there. The manufacturing lines had been ramped up and the administration made a critical error in scaling back dramatically, in the midst of the pandemic, the number of tests that it ordered,” Collins told WGME Friday. “I just don’t understand it.”
Meanwhile, five Senate Democrats called on White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients this week to explain “why the Administration failed to take more significant steps earlier to increase access to at-home tests.”
Biden has scrambled to address testing woes linked to the Omicron variant. Beginning Saturday, health insurance companies are required to reimburse policyholders for up to eight rapid tests per month.
Studies indicate that Omicron symptoms are less severe, particularly among vaccinated people who receive a “booster” shot, but the large volume of new cases is still causing hospitalization rates to surge across the country.
More than 149,000 US hospital patients had COVID-19 as of Wednesday — compared to the pre-Omicron US record of 133,000 in January 2021.
More than 1.35 million US residents tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, according to CDC data — more than four times last winter’s peak of 294,000 cases on Jan. 8, 2021. 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.