White House falling short on promise of free COVID-19 tests

Since September, the Biden administration has promised close to 1 billion free COVID-19 tests for schools, health centers, food banks, underserved communities and the American public. 

But as Christmas approaches and residents of New York and elsewhere line up for hours to get their noses swabbed, it’s unclear how many tests have been ordered or sent out to those who need them.

What’s more, even if all the tests promised by the Biden administration since Labor Day do get shipped out, experts say it won’t be enough to track and counter the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, President Biden promised 500 million free at-home rapid COVID-19 tests would be available to order from an as-yet-unnamed website beginning early next month.

President Biden announced at-home rapid COVID-19 tests would be available early next month.
EPA

That was just the latest promise from the White House to ramp up America’s testing capability.  

On Sept. 9, Biden announced that the administration was “committing $2 billion to purchase nearly 300 million rapid tests for distribution to community health centers, food banks, and schools, so that every American no matter their income can access free and convenient tests.”

Weeks later, on Oct. 6, the White House announced “an additional $1 billion investment to further mobilize COVID-19 testing production and produce an additional 180 million rapid, at-home tests by the end of the year.”

At-home COVID tests
The demand for at-home COVID tests increases as the Omicron variant surges.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/Shutte

On Dec. 2, the administration vowed more tests would be coming, saying, “to ensure equitable access to free at-home tests for our uninsured and unserved communities, the President will double the commitment from September to distribute 25 million free tests to community sites to 50 million tests and will add rural clinics to the program.” 

The White House and Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to requests by the Post to confirm how many tests had been distributed since Labor Day. The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for ensuring the tests past muster, declined to comment and referred The Post to the White House and HHS.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” Dr. Robert Wachter, Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of San Francisco, told The Post. “You know, if 1 billion is the total sum of the tests that are available, the answer is going to be ‘no’ because if, you know, if you just do the math, if you’re testing everybody coming into work, testing everybody coming into a restaurant … everybody getting on airliner – all the reasonable things to do – then you’re going to do far more tests than that.”

Wachter added that he was “confused” by the White House’s testing rollout, noting that while Tuesday’s announcement was “a start,” “you can’t snap your fingers and manufacture a billion tests tomorrow.”

“By the time they start rolling out in a major way into January, Omicron may be getting toward its peak, but I still think it will be useful because (A) there’ll be new variants, probably, and (B) as the Pfizer drug – which is also going to be in massively short supply – begins to hit its stride, you’re going to need a mechanism to tell if people have COVID in order to trigger a prescription for that medicine,” he said.

Wachter also warned that tests may be needed on back-to-back days “in order to be confident that you’re not infectious.”

Jennifer Nuzzo, who helps track testing trends with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the New York Times that the White House announcement was “not a plan — it’s a hope” and added that the testing may only have an impact if delivered in January and February instead of being spread out over several months. 

At-home COVID tests
The White House and Department of Health and Human Services did not confirm how many tests had been distributed since September.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/Shutte

“500 million #covid19 tests sound like a lot. But: -330 million Americans -If half want tests = 165 million -That’s only 3 tests TOTAL per person,” tweeted Leana Wen, the former head of Planned Parenthood and a public health professor at George Washington University “Not nearly enough for testing to become the norm before school/work, and friends getting together. We need a plan for far more.”


Follow the latest news on the Omicron variant with the New York Post’s live coverage


Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, called the 500 million rapid tests a “start,” but noted on Twitter that “billions are needed to help prevent the spread.” 

As of Thursday, Biden had yet to sign off on the contracts approving this week’s promised tests. White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the delay, telling reporters that the contracts are being “finalized” and that the administration has no concern. 

Once the contracts are signed, the White House will likely face problems on the production side of the rollout, as manufacturers warn of increased demands. CVS and Walgreens – the two largest drugstore chains in the US – have been limiting customers to six and four testing kits per purchase. 

As the White House looks to amp up their coronavirus testing efforts, the US still falls short compared to several other countries. 

According to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, the US is only testing 329 people per every 100,000 daily while Spain is testing 3,118 per 100,000, the United Kingdom is testing 2,254 per 100,000 and France is testing 1,384 per 100,000. 

While other countries might have placed more emphasis on testing than the US, Wachter told The Post that “I don’t know any country that got it all right,” noting that authorities in the UK were more willing to relax masking rules than in the US. 

“In retrospect, this turns out to be a hard enough problem that we needed to do all of the above and we didn’t, clearly, at this point,” he added.

The president himself criticized his administration’s rollout of at-home coronavirus testing this week, telling ABC’s “World News Tonight” that “nothing’s been good enough.” 

President Joe Biden
Despite the latest plan, President Biden has yet to sign off on the contracts approving the promised tests.
AFP via Getty Images

“We’re nearly two years into this pandemic, you’re a year into the presidency, empty shelves and no test kits in some places three days before Christmas when it’s so important,” anchor David Muir asked Biden. “Is that good enough?”

“No, nothing’s been good enough,” Biden said. “But look, look where we are. When last Christmas, we were in a situation where we had significantly fewer vaccinated — people vaccinated, emergency rooms were filled. You had serious backups in hospitals that were causing great difficulties. We’re in a situation now where we have 200 million people fully vaccinated. Two-hundred million people fully vaccinated. And we have more than that who have had one shot, at least one shot. And they’re getting these booster shots as well.”

The president did admit that he wished he “had thought about ordering” the tests “two months ago,” but still said his administration’s response was not a failure.