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COVIDtest.gov has been helpful in getting tests out — but there's more work to do

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

As government websites go, the launch of covidtests.gov was surprisingly smooth. Placing an order for free COVID-19 at-home tests was easy, and many households have already received their four tests.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This thing is sealed tight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Two boxes. Oh, wait. These are the same ones that my local 7-Eleven has at their counter for sale. So at least now I know that the ones at 7-Eleven are legit.

AMIE BROCKWAY METCALF: We have two disposable sampling swabs, two little plastic test tubes.

KEITH: Barb Gilman, a teacher in Omaha, Neb., says hers arrived just in time. She wasn't feeling great, and the test confirmed she had COVID.

BARB GILMAN: I was able to find out right away and not expose anyone. And now I have five days off from teaching.

KEITH: But it hasn't been smooth for everyone.

BROCKWAY METCALF: I seem to have only gotten directions in Spanish, which is not helpful for me.

KEITH: And even if they're grateful for the tests, people like Amie Brockway Metcalf in Westchester County, N.Y. say the allotted four tests won't cover everyone in the house.

BROCKWAY METCALF: We are a family of five, so there's that.

KEITH: And despite saying tests would ship 7 to 12 days after online orders were placed, it is now clear the Biden administration hasn't been able to keep that pledge. Many Americans - NPR has heard from hundreds - are still checking their mailboxes.

DUSTIN COWAN: I placed an order for COVID tests from the government on January 18, but unfortunately have not received any further communication as to when the items will ship or any way to track the process of the order.

JAZMINE XU: I signed up for the free COVID tests the day the site was available. We still haven't gotten it. I'm a little annoyed or frustrated.

KARL JOHNSON: My family and I ordered our COVID tests on January 19. We're still waiting on those.

COWAN: My daughter, in fact, started feeling off on Sunday this past week. We ended up finally accessing some test kits via Amazon. Would have been certainly helpful to have these a few weeks ago.

JOHNSON: During the waiting period, my son had symptoms and a fever. It took us two days to track down a COVID test, and he was positive. So just to be able to know that sooner would have been so much better.

KEITH: That's Karl Johnson in Boston, Jazmine Xu in New York City and Dustin Cowan in Knoxville. And full disclosure, I haven't gotten mine yet, either. So what's going on here? I checked in with Dr. Tom Inglesby, the COVID testing czar at the White House.

TOM INGLESBY: We have shipped tens of millions of tests, and millions more are going out every day. We've let the manufacturers know that we need them here as quickly as possible. And as soon as we get those tests, we're going to keep getting tests out as quickly as we can.

KEITH: So I think that if I'm reading between the lines here, you're saying that the test companies have not delivered the tests that you need to mail out to all the people who've ordered them.

INGLESBY: We have ordered tests on an unprecedented scale. This is the largest test procurement in history, as far as we can tell, and manufacturers are making these tests as quickly as they can. So I think everybody's trying to do their job. It's just a big operation.

KEITH: We heard from a woman in Wisconsin whose community was just absolutely getting hammered with omicron, and she couldn't find tests anywhere. She had a family member with COVID and was desperately trying to figure out if she did too. And she was basically just staring at her mailbox, hoping the free test would show up, but they haven't come yet. Is that an experience that you're worried about other people having?

INGLESBY: Sure. I mean, we'd like people to get these tests as quickly as possible, and we're moving as quickly as we can. What I would say is that there are other options for people. We want people to take advantage of those other options while they're waiting for tests to arrive. There are more than 20,000 free testing sites across the country. We also have now tests coming to community health centers by the millions. And then starting in the middle of January, for those people with private insurance, they can now get up to eight tests covered per month. You can pick those up in a pharmacy or online.

We're encouraging people to take advantage of the range of opportunities. The website is a really exciting part of that, but there are other options for people that we hope will take advantage of in the meantime.

KEITH: The White House has so far committed to buy a billion rapid tests. And Inglesby says depending on demand, they may ultimately be able to distribute more than four tests per household. At this point, though, they're still working to fulfill the 60 million or so orders they've gotten so far.

From nearly the start of the pandemic, Dr. Michael Mina has called for widespread distribution of rapid tests. He used to be an epidemiologist at Harvard and now works for the testing company eMed. He says that covidtests.gov is a great start, but there's more to be done.

MICHAEL MINA: Well, the biggest issue in the United States has been a general lack of tests that are available. We need to get more of these tests on the market, whether that's sold directly to individuals or purchased by the federal government, so that people aren't trying to conserve their tests and can use them without having to make a careful decision about when exactly is the right time to use one of these precious tests.

KEITH: Yeah. I talked to Tom Inglesby, and he described the times when the government imagines people using them, like if you have symptoms or if you need to return to work after having COVID or if you're going to visit grandma. But if you only have four tests, even in a household of one, you'd burn through them pretty quickly, and most households have more than one person.

MINA: That's right. We've only gotten essentially one per person out to the country. And so we can use them strategically. For example, if you go into isolation and you want to exit isolation early, using a rapid test at day five, that's a good use of these tests.

KEITH: So obviously, the number of tests being sent to each household that asks for them is a deficiency. But let's imagine there is a family of four and one person starts having symptoms. They've got these four precious tests from the government. How would you use them?

MINA: Don't use your test the first day you have symptoms. Assume that you're infectious and take precautions, and use the test 24 or 48 hours later. You want to maximize the chances that you find COVID when you have it without potentially waiting too long. That's one way to conserve these tests and really stretch them out.

KEITH: In some ways, the omicron wave is receding. People's tests are starting to show up. Is this too little, too late, or is your sense that this program was maybe never about omicron and is about whatever comes next?

MINA: Well, it's certainly too late in the sense of, did we have it when we really needed it in November and December and January? We didn't. But it's not too late in the sense that we unfortunately are not done with this pandemic. We still have many, many, many people going to the hospital. We will be kicking ourselves if a new variant comes into the United States and we aren't prepared. And certainly omicron and delta, they're going to continue circulating, they're going to continue making people sick.

And so that's why it's so important if we can tie these rapid tests that are being distributed to very simple pathways to get treatment, then all of a sudden, the importance that each individual rapid test plays in America becomes much, much more powerful to help us get out of this acute phase of this pandemic, stop hospitalizations and deaths and get people treatment on time in order to do that.

KEITH: Michael Mina, thank you so much for joining us.

MINA: Absolutely. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY'S "CHAMELEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.