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President Joe Biden told reporters last week that he was being “tested every day” for COVID-19. Where is that kind of testing access for the rest of the country?
We get it, Biden is an important guy who sees a lot of people. It was prudent for him to be tested repeatedly while exhibiting symptoms of what turned out to be nasal congestion (though according to his doctor, he was tested three times last week, not every day). What we have trouble understanding is how everyday Americans across Maine and the country, the people doing their best to live and work through this pandemic while also trying not to spread a potentially deadly virus, continue to run into challenges as they try to access COVID-19 testing.
Vaccines remain a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19. Maine is seeing a new record high for hospitalizations set on almost a daily basis. The majority of hospitalized patients and the vast majority of patients in intensive care have been unvaccinated, according to hospital and state officials.
But vaccines are not the only tool. Along with existing and increasing treatment options, testing must remain a central part of federal and state efforts to combat the virus.
In early October — amid backlogs, delayed results and difficulty finding appointment slots — we called the testing situation “unacceptable.” We hoped that Biden’s efforts to use the Defense Production Act to bolster the testing supply and state work to expand testing sites would help. But many testing challenges remain months later.
“Testing and testing access remain a challenge nationwide, as well as here in Maine,” Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Nirav Shah said last week. “We’re working tirelessly to try to increase that.”
Shah cited high demand and staffing challenges as primary factors driving long waits for testing. The staffing challenges in particular seem to be reverberating throughout Maine’s COVID-19 response right now — also contributing to people having trouble accessing vaccine booster shots in some areas, for example.
In a state and country facing health care staffing issues, rapid tests need to be accessible and affordable. This kind of testing, though it can be less accurate than other tests, can be conducted quickly at home without burdening an already overburdened system. Shah recently spoke with NPR about the importance of rapid testing at this point in the pandemic.
Unfortunately, these rapid tests have often been quick to sell out at pharmacies and can cost between $14 and $24 for a pack of two. That is not affordable for everyone.
The lag in testing can be felt acutely in rural areas of the state dependent on pharmacies. Maine is testing more for the virus than most other states, but that statewide comparison doesn’t necessarily make testing available to someone in Farmington when they need it.
Biden’s announcement last week that his administration will up its previous commitment of 25 million free at-home tests for uninsured Americans to 50 million (to be made available at community sites including rural clinics), and will move to ensure that the 150 million Americans with private insurance can get reimbursed for rapid test costs, was welcome news.
However, this sets up a potentially cumbersome barrier, with insured individuals having to foot the bill first before getting reimbursed, and it’s a change that won’t be fully realized until mid-January. Plus, even when there’s a step in the right direction on testing, the administration is sending mixed signals.
Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki has justifiably been met with pushback for her dismissal of a question on Monday about sending free rapid tests to all Americans, as if this were some far-fetched, even outrageous notion.
As others have already pointed out, this is a strategy that other nations have adopted in some form. Psaki’s reaction conveyed both a disdain and lack of consideration of this approach from the Biden administration, and that is worrisome. With the amount of resources the federal government has poured into the COVID response, this idea needs to at least be on the table.
“This answer was terrible, flippant, wrong,” Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist, said on Twitter in response to Psaki’s comments. “Rapid tests are hard to get, expensive, and could be a key intervention in fighting COVID-19. Other countries have figured out better ways to get these tools into the hands of their citizens. Do better.”
The tone and speed of action are not meeting the urgency of this moment. They haven’t been for months. Gonsalves is right. When it comes to testing, the U.S. and its leaders need to do better.