The Biden administration implemented the program, which was expected to deliver 500 million coronavirus test kits across the country last winter, when the omicron variant hit and infections rose in various parts of the United States.
The White House is pausing new orders to prevent the country from running out of “our limited remaining supply” of self-administered tests in case it were hit with a surge of cases this fall, a senior administration official told The Washington Post.
“We have warned that Congressional inaction would force unacceptable tradeoffs and harm our overall COVID-19 preparedness and response,” the senior administration official said. “…Unfortunately, because of the limited funding we have to work with, we have had to make impossible choices about which tools and programs to invest in — and which ones we must downsize, pause, or end all together.”
Public health experts who spoke to The Post said the administration’s decision to halt the program will make it harder for people to access coronavirus tests — especially for those who are uninsured, live in remote areas far from distribution centers or face mobility issues. The timing of the decision is also concerning as the new school year begins and colder weather leads to more indoor gatherings, raising the risk of infections, and the ever-looming threat of more transmissible virus variants.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University. “We don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward. Availability of testing is a very critical part of how we need to manage covid-19.”
As challenging as it is to interrupt the “most popular program” for obtaining free coronavirus tests in the United States, those looking to access free test kits still have other alternatives, said Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Some pharmacies, libraries, community centers, food banks, long-term care facilities and schools still offer free coronavirus tests. Access to free tests varies state-by-state. Private health insurance companies as well as Medicaid and Medicare are reimbursing the costs of at-home test kits.
People who have been relying on the federal program will now face an extra hurdle to find free coronavirus tests, but El-Sadr encourages them to do the “extra work.”
Other public health experts are concerned the country would not be prepared to handle an uptick in cases like last winter’s, when the omicron variant spread rapidly. People spent hours in line outside free coronavirus testing sites or flocked to pharmacies hunting for rapid tests, which were much less common then.
“People were trying to protect their families over the holidays and trying to test, and we didn’t have the capacity to do it,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health. “… We should be prepared to reduce the toll of future variants, which could always be worse.”
The program has distributed more than 600 million tests to US households. Each address can place up to three orders with a total of 16 tests. It is unclear when or if the program will resume, but the senior administration official told The Post it’d be back up and running if Congress provides funding.
“Until then, we believe reserving the remaining tests for distribution later this year is the best course,” the senior administration official said.
Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.