Americans will be able to order free, at-home COVID-19 tests from a new federal website starting next Wednesday, the White House announced, as the Biden administration launches its distribution of the 1 billion tests it plans to buy this year.
The tests will usually take 7 to 12 days to ship, the White House said, but Americans can begin requesting them on COVIDTests.gov on Jan. 19. They will also ship for free.
“Tens of millions” of tests are on hand, and half a billion will be available for ordering starting next Wednesday, one senior administration official said. The Biden administration has now finalized contracts for the purchase of 420 million tests of the first 500 million since they announced the plan on Dec. 21.
“I'd say we've done that on an extremely rapid timeline,” one official said, calling it “an unprecedentedly large purchase.”
Americans can order four free tests per residential address at the start of the program, and the Biden administration will then work to procure the second half billion tests to add to the federal website.
President Joe Biden has been criticized for not securing a nationwide supply of rapid tests earlier and before the winter surge of the highly infectious omicron variant, and he announced on Thursday his plan to increase the government's purchase to 1 billion rapid tests.
But with the tests unlikely to arrive before late January, people will need to plan ahead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend self-testing when you have been exposed or potentially exposed to the virus, or when you're preparing to gather indoors with a large group of people. A positive test means you are likely infected with COVID-19, the CDC says, but health experts recommend "serial" testing, or testing multiple times, to increase your result's accuracy since rapid tests aren't as sensitive to the omicron strain.
“Certainly if you’re going to gather with family, if you’re going to a gathering where people are immunocompromised or where they’re elderly or where you have people who might be unvaccinated or poorly protected from a vaccine that might be an opportunity you want to test,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, on Wednesday.
Explaining the longer shipping timeline, senior administration officials said it could speed up over time.
“As the program ramps up, we expect that timeline will shorten,” one official said, later adding: “The program is intended to really ensure that people have at-home rapid tests available in the weeks ahead.”
All told, the purchase and distribution of the initial 500 million tests is expected to cost the U.S. government $4 billion, they estimated.
Officials didn’t say what time the website would launch next Wednesday but seemed confident it wouldn’t crash, noting that the U.S. Digital Service — which was created after Healthcare.gov — has been partnering with the U.S. postal service to “load test” the site and prepare for the launch.
The postal service will oversee the delivery of the tests via First Class mail for the contiguous United States and via Priority Mail to Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. territories.
The Biden administration will also launch a call line “to help those unable to access the website to place orders” and work with community-based organizations to support the highest-risk communities in requesting tests.
Officials noted that another federal effort to make free tests available through insurance reimbursement goes into effect on Saturday, Jan. 15. Covered Americans can purchase up to eight tests per month and get them 100% reimbursed with their private insurance.
Medicaid programs already cover testing and doctor-ordered tests are already covered as well, plus the administration has worked to expand free testing sites to more than 20,000 locations around the country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This is a developing story. Check back later for further updates.