Free COVID-19 tests as Omicron rises

On Thursday, President Biden outlined his strategy to combat surges in COVID-19 cases—with particular threats from the Delta and nascent Omicron variants—over the coming winter, a time when viral loads grow heavier as people shelter indoors. In a speech at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, the president encouraged vaccine booster shots and stated the administration’s intent to make over-the-counter, take-home covid tests free for millions of Americans.

Details are scarce, but Biden said that the program would require private health insurance companies to reimburse customers for purchased tests. Around 150 million privately insured Americans would be covered by that mandate; it does not, however, include those with federally sponsored insurance such as Medicare and Medicaid. Nor does it include the uninsured.

To reach that population, the administration said it would supply a total of 50 million free tests, to be distributed in community health centers and rural clinics across the country.

The program would likely begin in January, with more guidelines promised at that time.

Biden’s strategy comes as the United States faces a fresh menace: a new mutant strain of virus dubbed Omicron. Scientists are still studying the variant, but early evidence suggests it could be more transmissible than even the highly contagious Delta variant; it’s unclear whether it’s any deadlier. Omicron was first detected and identified in South Africa, and has since been confirmed in five U.S. states including California, Colorado, and New York—which is also where one individual who later tested positive in Minnesota had attended a massive anime convention days before.

And with the Omicron strain circulating, frequent and widespread testing will be paramount in disease control. While most Americans are able to get free tests in hospitals and doctor offices, at-home tests—a significantly more convenient and time-flexible option—have been considerably less accessible, costing between $10-$40 apiece. That’s somewhat unique to the U.S.: In Germany, tests are sold for roughly $1 in grocery stores. In India, they go for roughly $3.50. In the United Kingdom, they’re free from the government website, and in Canada, they’re offered free to businesses for employees.

While Biden’s strategy hopes to lower the cost barrier, some have questioned why the U.S. perpetually struggles to make basic healthcare easily accessible to the masses. Some policy experts suggest the administration could purchase bulk tests on behalf of all Americans and supply them at little-to-no cost, like European governments have done. Other analysts posit that the Food and Drug Administration’s stringent rules for authorization—and the financial stress it places on manufacturers who can meet them—would ultimately thwart the rise of low-cost testing. But regardless of the cause, the effect stays the same: Americans shoulder the burden—in this case, they will have to save and submit any receipts for at-home test reimbursements themselves, or else forfeit the cash.