Why won’t the US mail free COVID-19 tests to Americans? Other countries do it

Dec 13, 2021

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The White House earlier this month announced a bevy of measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus as the omicron variant spreads in the U.S.

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Some of those policies, like the requirement that ​​all U.S.-bound air travelers must produce a negative COVID-19 test taken within one calendar day of their departure, and an extension of the federal mask mandate on public transit, got lots of attention. But something else was briefly mentioned: expanding free at-home COVID-19 tests for Americans through testing sites, community centers and clinics in rural areas.

That proposal was brought up again in a White House press briefing on Dec. 6 when a reporter asked: “Last week, obviously, the President explained some ramp-up in testing, but there are still a lot of countries, like Germany and the U.K. and South Korea, that basically have massive testing, free of charge or for a nominal fee. Why can’t that be done in the United States?”

Several countries already offer free or reduced-cost COVID-19 testing, which I’ll detail below. The problem was press secretary Jen Psaki’s acerbic response where she said, “Should we just send one to every American?”

If we want life to go back to normal and travel to rebound faster, sending COVID-19 tests to every American should be a top priority for the U.S. It’s an issue everyone should care about, especially with the spread of the omicron variant.

What Psaki got wrong the most about at-home testing is that it isn’t a novel idea – at all. Rapid testing can be affordable and accessible. And if the U.S. wants to provide tests to all Americans, it only has to look at its closest ally across the pond for guidance.

What the White House got wrong about at-home testing

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Psaki didn’t actually answer the reporter’s question, but her response seemed to suggest that the White House believes it’s an unrealistic idea.

“Then what — then what happens if you — if every American has one test?  How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?” Psaki responded. The question about cost – and how often testing should be available – is the wrong one to ask. It should be, “how can we make this happen?”

A handful of countries much smaller than the U.S. offer free rapid tests that can be mailed to residents. For instance, Britons can order one pack containing seven tests per day at no cost to them. The U.K. uses rapid lateral flow tests to help find cases in people who may have no symptoms but are still infectious. These results can be turned around in 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the type of rapid lateral flow test taken. And it isn’t just for people who actually have the virus, either. The NHS says this service is for people who can’t otherwise get tests from work, school or college. In other words, people who are likely more middle or low-income.

The opposite is happening in the U.S. The White House’s intention to cover the costs of at-home COVID-19 testing only covers Americans using private health insurance and not public insurance. That means people with Medicare or Medicaid — roughly 34% of the population – would not be covered under President Biden’s plan.

To be fair, the White House also said that it’s planning to send 50 million at-home test kits to community centers and rural areas, but there’s no indication of when that will take place. They are also notoriously scarce in more rural areas, and it’s unclear how the White House will remedy that problem.

In addition to a testing problem, there’s also an accessibility problem.

Only recently has it become easier to obtain a COVID-19 rapid test for at-home testing from a drugstore. Abbott’s BinaxNow COVID-19 Home Test (which can’t be used for travel) is available at drugstores like Walgreens and CVS. But if you’re on a budget or need to test an entire family, this option can be pricey as tests are sold in a pack of two that costs around $25. Those costs can quickly add up, especially because the U.S. won’t retroactively reimburse Americans for expenses they’ve shelled out for at-home testing.

The fewer people with access to affordable testing means the longer the pandemic will continue to drag on.

For travel alone, there was a $500 billion loss in spending in the U.S., which cost the U.S. $1.1 trillion in economic output in 2020. Even with more than half of the country fully vaccinated, travel is still not back to normal, and it’s unclear how the omicron variant will impact the industry.

And those are just financial costs – the human toll is infinitely more significant. Nearly 800,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Even with 60% of the population fully vaccinated against the virus, more than 33,000 Americans have died from the virus in the past month alone. And positive cases are once again surging, which means we could be in for a grim winter if access to testing isn’t widely available.

Bottom line

We’re two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and haven’t quite figured out how to handle testing. Some countries appear to be doing it right by sending tests directly to residents’ homes for free. Yet the U.S. is only just introducing the concept, and even then, the White House recently balked at the idea. The idea isn’t new — and it appears to be a success in other locations. If we want travel to come roaring back and for positive cases and deaths to slow, making tests available to mail to all Americans should be more than just an idea.

Featured photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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