'tis the season

The return of free at-home covid tests for US households is a quiet message from the White House

Despite the lack of formal precautions, covid-19 remains a risk, particularly in the winter holidays
The return of free at-home covid tests for US households is a quiet message from the White House
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)
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Only one month ago, White House covid response coordinator Ashish Jha said he was not expecting a covid surge this holiday season. This was in line with the Biden administration’s official stand on covid: the emergency is over, there is no need for precautionary measures (such as masks, distancing, or lower capacity rules for indoor locations), and the time is upon us to move covid tests, treatments, and vaccines to the commercial market.

This approach doesn’t seem to consider it the government’s responsibility to establish guidelines that could protect immunocompromised people who are unable to get vaccinated, let alone those who are not up to date with their boosters—whether due to their individual circumstances (such as lack of access to vaccine site, work hours), or personal choice.

But even a determined push forward is unable to will the pandemic out of existence. Covid cases indeed have been surging around the country—and though tacitly, the White House is acknowledging the emergency.

Time to get testing again

As of Dec. 15, American households can order free at-home covid tests from the government, on top of the ones reimbursed by health insurance providers. The initial kit-delivery program ended in early September, but was resumed to tackle a winter surge in spreading of the virus.

“Cases are on the rise again as families are spending more time indoors and gathering for the holidays,” reads a White House message announcing the restart of the program.

The tests are expected to begin shipping on Dec. 19. The guidelines include a suggestion to take the test if “you’re going to gather with a group of people, especially those who are at risk of severe disease or may not be up to date on their COVID-⁠19 vaccines.”

It’s a tacit acknowledgement that it is premature to give up all precautionary behavior, and that the risk of infection remains, particularly considering only about half the vaccinated population has received the bivalent booster.

Who can order a free test, and how

In this new round of free at-home test distribution, every American household is entitled to one order of four rapid tests, irrespective of how many tests they received in the previous rounds.

The tests can be ordered online through the US Postal Service website, or via phone at 1-800-232-0233, where orders can be placed in 150 languages, from 8 am to 8 pm on weekdays, and from 8 am to 5 pm on weekends.

Expiration dates also have been extended for previously sent tests, so those who still have old, supposedly expired tests at home should check whether the dates on their boxes are actually still accurate before they throw them away.

The government also is making more free tests available in locations such as schools, rural health clinics, and long-term care facilities.