The government definitely got one COVID thing right: They sent out free rapid tests.
Sure, there was a lot to quibble about with the program. The first tests were sent out in January, after the omicron wave spiked. You could only order a few tests for your household at a time, for a total of 16 swabs over the course of the program, hardly enough to routinely test one person, let alone a family. But using the website and getting them in the mail was miraculously simple. And the tests—a key tool in figuring out whether you are at risk of spreading COVID to a loved one or neighbor—were absolutely free.
Well—that’s over now. Friday will be the last day to order the tests until further notice.
“I think the president decided we’re in a good place right now,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Monday, Spectrum News 1 reported. “We’ve really gotten over the hump of COVID. I certainly have been able to buy home test kits in CVS any time I go.” While insurance plans still cover the tests, some 8 percent of Americans are without insurance. (Though historically, that’s good news. Thanks Obama!) Plus: it’s really annoying and sometimes practically impossible to be reimbursed for covered goods and services by your insurance company.
The free tests might not be gone for good. A senior White House official told NBC News that the government is hanging onto some of the stockpile of tests to send out in the event of a fall surge of cases. But regular testing is one of the ways that we can prevent a surge from happening in the first place.
The fact is that while we are still in a pandemic, it should be stupidly easy to get your hands on a rapid test. Just as it should be stupidly easy to get vaccinated. And to take days off work if you’re sick, and to get a well-fitting N95. You should be breathing filtered air, in buildings, without thinking about it! (Because what could any of us really personally do to upgrade the ventilation in our office buildings, anyway?) A common refrain from leaders, often uttered in the course of reassuring the public, is “we have the tools” to fight COVID. Those tools should be abundant.
Instead, the omicron-specific booster shot that will be rolled out shortly might be the last one the government will pay for. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shared that the federal supply of vaccines may run out in January, with the paxlovid supply estimated to last through mid-2023. After that—unless Congress allocates more funding—people will have to figure out how to pay for COVID vaccines for themselves, whether through insurance or out of pocket. More than 20 percent of Americans have yet to receive even one shot of the vaccine; more hurdles to do so are not what that group needs.
“While the federal government has been pleased to play this role”—of providing pandemic health services—“we have always known that we would not be in this business forever,” wrote Dawn O’Connell, the department’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response. The funding to continue “play this role” has simply stalled out.
As we enter this more austere phase of pandemic response, the government is acting like it just gave you $20 to go to the movies with your friends. Can’t you grow up and handle the pandemic yourself?
Our leaders are not failing the science part of fighting COVID; the tools are there. But they’re failing the logistics, the funding, the ongoing-ness of it. It’s easy, in this environment, to feel like the people around you are failing: They aren’t masking any longer, or they’re coming to work a little sick, or they’re on Instagram, packed together with friends at a wedding. It’s easy to feel you’re failing to care about COVID, if you stop to think about it—for becoming a person who mostly forgets about COVID, some of the time, a lot of the time.
Maybe we should be masking more, partying less. But also: We can’t pick up the slack we’ve been handed. Pandemic tools work best when everyone is using them, when there are coordinated efforts. And for that, America needs more support.