WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that half a billion free at-home COVID-19 tests will be distributed to Americans who want them starting next month, one of several new steps to combat the rapidly spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.
A website under development will let Americans request rapid tests for their use, at no cost to them, that will be delivered through the U.S. Postal Service, according to a senior administration official who spoke to reporters late Monday.
Details, including how many tests would be available per household, are still being finalized, the official said, who added that a January time frame was chosen because that is when the tests will be available from manufacturers.
“Testing in this country is a lot better than it was. But there’s more to do, and we’re taking action now,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The 500 million government-provided tests are in addition to the 50 million Biden already announced would be distributed to clinics earlier this month. Further, insurance companies would be required to cover the costs of at-home tests for their customers, also starting in January.
The test distribution program represents a reversal from the administration’s apparent policy just two weeks ago, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki sarcastically responded to a question about rapid tests by asking if the government should just send one to every American.
Other steps Biden plans to announce include the mobilization of 1,000 military doctors, nurses and medics to go into badly affected areas as needed in January and February; the activation of Federal Emergency Management Agency response teams to help hospitals add bed capacity; the creation of new testing sites in cities across the country; new vaccination sites; and further use of the Defense Production Act to increase the availability of tests, including at-home tests.
Biden continues to emphasize the importance of vaccines, urging already vaccinated Americans to get boosters and those have not gotten a vaccine shot yet to get one right away.
“The president will tell the American people that if they are vaccinated and follow the precautions that we all know well, especially masking while traveling, they should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as they planned,” the official said ahead of the announcement. “If you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible, and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from COVID.”
The official said that the new omicron variant, which on Monday became the dominant one in the country, is not a devastating blow, given where the nation is today.
“We should take omicron seriously, but this is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” the official said. “We have the tools, we have the knowledge, we have the planning to get through this. If you’re fully vaccinated, and especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected.”
Biden successfully oversaw the ramping up of vaccinations upon taking office in January and came close to hitting an ambitious target of 70% of eligible Americans having received at least one shot by July 4. He and the White House celebrated that summer holiday as a step along the path to the end of the pandemic only to have the new delta variant take off soon afterward as efforts to persuade a sizable section of anti-vaccine Americans ― disproportionately supporters of former President Donald Trump ― to get inoculated faltered.
That pattern repeated in recent weeks, with another new variant beginning to spread, once again primarily affecting unvaccinated people and those whose second shot took place more than six months ago.