In October, White House dismissed proposal for 'free rapid tests for the holidays': report
As the highly transmissible and now-dominant Omicron variant drives a nationwide surge in coronavirus infections amid a period of widespread air travel, President Joe Biden said earlier this week that he wishes he "had thought about ordering" 500 million at-home tests "two months ago."
But new reporting reveals that his administration in October was presented with—and rejected—a plan to scale up rapid testing before the holidays.
"Three days before Christmas, if you look out across the country, you see it everywhere, these long lines, people waiting for hours outside in the cold, just to get tested, to be reassured before they spend time with their family," ABC "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir said to Biden during an interview on Wednesday. "If you go to the pharmacy, we hear this over and over again, empty shelves, no test kits. Is that a failure?"
"I don't think it's a failure," Biden responded. "I think it's—you could argue that we should have known a year ago, six months ago, two months ago, a month ago."
However, the president lamented, "I wish I had thought about ordering" a half-billion test kits "two months ago."
According to Vanity Fair, a group of Covid-19 testing experts on October 22 gave the White House "a blueprint for how to avoid what is happening at this very moment." Their proposal "included a 'Bold Plan for Impact' and a provision for 'Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year.'"
Public health specialists presented Biden administration officials with a 10-page document—obtained and disclosed for the first time by Vanity Fair—outlining how to overhaul the nation's inadequate approach to testing.
The proposed plan, the magazine reported Thursday:
Would enable the U.S. to finally do what many other countries had already done: Put rapid at-home Covid-19 testing into the hands of average citizens, allowing them to screen themselves in real time and thereby help reduce transmission. The plan called for an estimated 732 million tests per month, a number that would require a major ramp-up of manufacturing capacity. It also recommended, right on the first page, a nationwide "Testing Surge to Prevent Holiday Covid Surge."
Three days after the meeting, on October 25, the Covid-19 testing experts—who hailed from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Covid Collaborative, and several other organizations—received a back channel communication from a White House official. Their big, bold idea for free home tests for all Americans to avoid a holiday surge, they were told, was dead.
Now, data shows that coronavirus cases are up 55% in the past two weeks, while hospitalizations and deaths are up 10% and 7%, respectively. Meanwhile, countless people in the U.S.—wary of infecting vulnerable relatives—are desperately waiting to get their hands on antigen tests that provide results in 15 minutes.
"This one is on Biden," Robert Cruickshank, campaign director at Demand Progress, said Thursday in response to the new report. "The White House made a significant mistake in not heeding early calls for widespread testing."
The Biden administration on December 2 unveiled a widely ridiculed plan requiring health insurance companies to reimburse privately insured patients who manage to purchase an at-home, rapid test despite the lack of supply and hefty price tag.
Four days later, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki scoffed when a reporter asked if the executive branch had considered mailing free tests to every household, as several other countries have been doing for months.
"The fury with which public health experts greeted Psaki's comments reflected their longstanding frustration with an administration that, in their view, has put almost all its focus on vaccinating the American public, at the expense of other critical aspects of the response, from getting shots into arms overseas to making high-quality masks widely available," Vanity Fair noted.
"It's undeniable that [the administration] took a vaccine-only approach," Dr. Michael Mina, a major advocate for rapid testing who attended the October White House meeting, told the magazine. The federal government "didn't support the notion of testing as a proper mitigation tool."
Just two weeks after mocking the idea, the White House on Tuesday announced a plan to distribute 500 million free at-home, rapid tests to households across the country via the postal service—by request beginning in January 2022.
While welcoming the development, many critics have characterized the effort as "too little, too late," especially when it comes to combating the Omicron tsunami, which is already well underway.
"Having a website where people can order rapid tests and get them for free, delivered to their homes, I think is really important," Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist at New York University and Bellevue Hospital in New York, said of Biden's plan. "The initial supply of half a billion test kits, when you consider 500 million test kits for 330 million Americans—that's not even two test kits per American, and that's not nearly enough. So I really hope they start to ramp up manufacturing quickly."
Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, added that "my only concern is that the Omicron wave is racing at us so fast that these tests may not be available in time to help in the exponential growth phase of the epidemic."
In a blog post published Tuesday, Dr. Eric Topol, executive vice president and a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, called Biden's announcement "good, but a far cry from what should have been announced in light of [the] uncontrolled spread of the Delta and now Omicron strains throughout the country."
The administration, he added, "continues to take a reactive stance, seemingly incapable of aggressive, bold initiatives that are under their control."
In a Common Dreams essay urging the Biden administration to use its authority under the Defense Production Act more aggressively to end the pandemic, Timi Iwayemi, a research fellow at the Revolving Door Project, wrote Wednesday that "researchers from the Kaiser Family Foundation have noted that if everyone over 11 tested twice a week, as is likely necessary to safely maintain an open economy during a surge, the country would need 2.3 billion monthly tests."
Iwayemi argued that "Biden must step up and fully utilize the authorities of the federal government to guarantee widespread availability of all the tools needed to manage the pandemic—tests, masks, vaccines, and pills."
Gounder, for her part, said that "I don't think these rapid tests will really become that much more widely available in that short a period of time. But the worst thing we could do is say that Omicron will be over in another month, so why bother doing these things?"
"There will be other variants," she added, "We need to have the tools available. And I think we have to have more of a preparedness, just-in-case approach to things."
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