WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly half of the 500 million free COVID-19 tests the Biden administration recently made available to the public still have not been claimed as virus cases plummet and people feel less urgency to test.
Wild demand swings have been a subplot in the pandemic, from vaccines to hand sanitizer, along with tests. On the first day of the White House test giveaway in January, COVIDtests.gov received over 45 million orders. Now officials say fewer than 100,000 orders a day are coming in for the packages of four free rapid tests per household.
Still, the White House sees the program as a step toward a deeper, yet more elastic, testing infrastructure that will accommodate demand surges and remain on standby when cases wane. “We totally intend to sustain this market,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, testing adviser to the COVID-19 response team, told The Associated Press. “We know the market is volatile and will come up and down with surges in variants.”
The White House says Americans have placed 68 million orders for packages of tests, which leaves about 46% of the stock of tests still available to be ordered.
Testing will become more important with mask requirements now easing, say some independent experts. “If infection control is still our priority, testing is central,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and commentator on the pandemic. “Four tests per household for one family will only last you one time. There should be enough tests for families to test twice a week.”
Private insurers are now required to cover eight free rapid tests per person, per month. Medicare coverage will start in the spring. The administration has also been making free at-home tests available through libraries, clinics and other community venues. Capacity for the more accurate PCR tests performed by labs has been built up. The White House recently put out a request to industry for ideas on how to sustain and expand domestic testing for the rest of this year.
Wen says people still need a guide for when to test and how often. “Right now it is still unclear,” she said.
President Joe Biden’s pivot to testing came under duress as the omicron variant gained force just before Christmas. Tests were frustratingly hard to come by, and expensive. The White House is sensitive to criticism that help may have come too late.
“There is no question some people found out they were positive from taking one of these tests and were able to keep other people from getting infected,” said Tim Manning, supply coordinator for the COVID-19 response team.
Overall about 20% to 25% of the tests have gone to people in distressed areas, officials said.
Now that demand is way down, it’s unclear what will happen to the White House giveaway program.
Although the program is still in its infancy, analyst Lindsey Dawson of the Kaiser Family Foundation believes its legacy may lie in familiarizing more people with testing. “It may get someone comfortable with utilizing the tests, thinking about how they might use testing in their lives,” she said.