Searching in vain to find at-home COVID-19 test kits at local pharmacies? Still scouring websites for potential deals and their expected delivery dates?
This week marks an important moment in that quest — or, at least, that’s what the Biden administration hopes after it initially pledged 500 million free at-home test kits for Americans. The White House has since doubled the order to 1 billion test kits.
The federal government’s COVIDtests.gov site was supposed to launch Wednesday, but it got an early start and began accepting orders for test kits on Tuesday. People were able to successfully and quickly get their kit orders in, as the omicron variant continues to fuel new cases at an elevated rate, even amid signs of hope that new cases and test positivity are now trending lower in many important population centers.
Each residential address can place one order to receive, for free, four individual rapid antigen COVID-19 tests to be conducted at home.
The White House was also expected to announce plans to distribute 400 million N95 masks, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. The free masks, coming from the Strategic National Stockpile, will be available at pharmacies and community centers as soon as late next week and the program will be fully operational in early February, a White House official said.
“Each residential address gets one order, which consists of four individual rapid antigen COVID-19 tests.”
It’s a good bet that demand for the free test kits will be brisk.
Here’s one indication: By Tuesday afternoon, more than 375,000 people were visiting the COVIDtests.gov site and more than 550,000 people were on the related U.S. Postal Service link, according to a federal site providing real-time analytics on web traffic to government agencies. The third most visited federally-operated site — a U.S. Postal Service link — had almost 30,000 visitors.
On Wednesday morning, both links had fewer visitors — each under 200,000 —- but they still were far and away the most visited federal government web pages.
Though there are signs the omicron variant’s impact may be peaking, particularly in Northeastern states, case counts in other regions are soaring.
Meanwhile, health insurers will now reimburse people on their costs for up to eight test kits per month — but that means policyholders must pay the upfront costs on kits that can range $20 to $40, and sometimes go higher.
Here’s what to expect on the new website:
Where can I request these tests?
COVIDTests.gov is the starting point to make orders, and a tab brings users to a U.S. Postal Service link, where people can provide their shipping information. An email address is optional for people who want to track shipping via notifications. The form does include a field for individual apartments.
There will be a phone line for people who do not have internet access or need extra help putting in their order, the White House has said. (Keep in mind that the feds aren’t the only ones distributing free at-home tests. A number of states and cities have distributed tests to their own residents.)
How many COVID-19 tests can I get from COVIDtests.gov?
An order shipped to a each home address is going to include four individual rapid antigen tests.
Keep in mind, health-insurance companies now have to abide by a separate reimbursement policy that began Jan. 15. In that case, a covered individual can get reimbursements on eight tests per month. That means, for example, if a family of four is covered under a plan, 32 tests are eligible for reimbursement.
Last week, senior administration officials said they already had “tens of millions” of test kits immediately in hand and ready to go. More than 420 million test kits of the 500 million pledge are formally earmarked for them in contracts with test makers, they said.
The White House estimates there will be 375 million at-home tests on the market just in the month of January. For the week ending Jan. 1, people purchased more than 9.5 million over-the-counter COVID test kits in a seven-day span for $171.5 million, according to the market-research organization NielsenIQ.
When will I get the free at-home tests from COVIDtests.gov?
The tests “will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering,” the White House has said. The kits will be mailed via the U.S. Postal Service’s first-class mail.
The post office and its staff of 650,000 are ready for the job, said Postmaster General and CEO Louis DeJoy. “We have been working closely with the administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches.”
Will the COVIDtests.gov website crash?
The administration certainly hopes not. The U.S. Digital Service has been testing the site’s capacity, according to officials. The agency was formed after the launch of Healthcare.gov. The main online portal for the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” got off to a rocky start in 2013 when many would-be users encountered site crashes.
“Every website launch in our view comes with risk,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two. But the best tech teams across the administration and the Postal Service are working hard to make this a success.”
MarketWatch reporter Victor Reklaitis contributed to this report.