Biden Admin Limits Free COVID Tests, Restricts Needed Access

Joe Ramlet, opinions editor

Pres. Joe Biden, who ran for office on the promise of “shutting down the virus,” recently rolled out a program offering one billion free at-home rapid COVID-19 tests to households nationwide. Amid the surge of the Omicron variant of the virus, increased testing capacity is welcome news. However, the program will limit tests to four per residential address “to ensure broad access,” the Biden administration stated in a Jan. 14 press release. This limit restricts, rather than expands, access to tests for those that need them most and is yet another failure of our government to adequately address the pandemic.

This federal distribution of tests comes following a requirement by the president that private health insurance companies reimburse individuals purchasing up to eight rapid at-home tests per month. That is, if you can find one, much less eight. Many stores and pharmacies are reporting a short supply of tests in the face of high demand. Recently, when I called my pharmacy to refill a prescription, they answered the phone saying they’re out of rapid tests before even asking how they can help me. According to a Jan. 25 article from CNET, Walgreens is capping purchases of tests at four per customer and CVS at six. During the most recent peak of cases, public health officials were quoted advising the public to consider themselves positive for coronavirus if they had symptoms, even without a test, due to the low supply.

So for many, including the uninsured, the federal program is the only way to get rapid at-home tests. Especially since workers with hourly jobs that don’t offer health insurance are more likely to face the public and risk exposure to the virus, the government needs to do better than offering four tests per address. This is universal – whether a household is one individual or an eight-person family. Additionally, some students I know have been unable to order tests because someone at their address already has, even though they live in a different apartment or dorm. And even though there’s a hotline to call in case someone doesn’t have access to the internet or is uncomfortable with computers, the phone number is hard to find on the website where you can order tests.

By all means, four tests are better than nothing. I know my household ordered our tests, and I would encourage you to do the same. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late. Decision-makers and public health officials put all their eggs in the vaccine basket early last year and, as a result, the United States lacked other needed and well-rounded aspects of response to the pandemic, like testing.

In the face of increasing requirements for proof of vaccination or negative test results to dine indoors or attend concerts, for example, maybe the shortage of tests will encourage vaccine holdouts to get their shots. I’m not a doctor or an epidemiologist, but to me, that seems like shoddy public health. As we’re starting to see reports of cases drop since the spike of the Omicron variant, hopefully, we can take the lull as an opportunity to get our hands on the tests we need to stay ahead of the virus and recover from the pandemic.

To order your four free at-home rapid COVID-19 tests, visit COVIDtests.gov or call 1-800-232-0233. You can also visit mn.gov/covid to find Community Testing Sites across the state or order an at-home saliva test, and Augsburg students can get tested through a partnership with the People’s Center Clinic across Riverside Avenue from campus.