Kim Schrier, a Democrat, is a physician and represents Washington’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House.
In the midst of the holiday season and with omicron, the highly contagious coronavirus variant, spreading around the world, this is a time when the United States ought to be providing inexpensive — or, even better, free — rapid coronavirus tests to anyone who wants one.
Covid-19 has been a part of our lives for what already seems like a long time. And all this time, I have stood with public health professionals in saying we need to use every tool we have to slow the spread of this disease and get back to relatively normal life.
We need businesses open. Children need to be physically in school. We all want to be out of masks. But when it comes to taking the necessary steps to make sure these things can happen, the country keeps tripping over itself.
As a pediatrician, I was awed by the development and rollout of several safe and highly effective coronavirus vaccines in less than a year. Vaccines are a crucial tool in fighting this pandemic — and the federal government, smartly, partnered with private industry to financially support and thereby accelerate the clinical trials, manufacturing and distribution of these vaccines.
Testing has been a whole other matter.
I recently tried to get a PCR test at home in Washington state. To have this done at my doctor’s office, I needed either to have symptoms or to have had a known exposure at least five days prior. This was also the requirement in May 2020 — that it continues to be so in December 2021 is ridiculous.
It makes no sense that federal and state governments continue to rely almost entirely on expensive, clinic-based PCR testing when staring them right in the face is a much less expensive, arguably more effective, tool: rapid antigen tests you can take at home.
For more than a year, I have pushed first the Trump administration and then the Biden administration to invest in rapid at-home tests as part of a multilayered approach to managing this pandemic. These tests can tell someone, in the privacy of their own home and within 15 minutes, whether they are contagious to others and should stay home.
When you have a virus that is highly contagious and spread by people who have no symptoms, this sort of information is critical.
And yet, President Biden’s most recent solution was to announce that in the new year, Americans will be able to get reimbursed by insurance companies for their rapid-test purchases. Seriously? There are many ways to improve the price and availability of rapid tests — but this proposal isn’t one of them. It places too great a burden on people seeking tests. It comes too late. And it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem: Two years in, screening for the coronavirus in the United States of America shouldn’t be this hard.
What could the federal government be doing? Individual states and other countries have shown the way. For instance, Colorado residents can fill out a few forms online and receive up to eight free rapid at-home tests a week, delivered to their doorsteps. Over the course of the pandemic, Germany and the United Kingdom have approved dozens of tests and made them available at very low prices in grocery stores and pharmacies across their countries. In the United States, only a handful of tests have been approved and appear on store shelves.
The president could use the Defense Production Act and either manufacture or purchase rapid at-home tests in vast quantities. His administration could reduce risk for companies to make inexpensive tests, much as the prior administration did with vaccines. If companies know that the government will purchase millions of their tests if they work, they will develop them. And the Food and Drug Administration could streamline its unnecessarily onerous approval process.
This is not rocket science. The goal should be inexpensive, or free, widely available tests that people can use a few times a week to make an informed decision about whether it is safe for them to go to school or work. And public gathering spaces — including restaurants, theaters and sports venues — should have access to a steady enough supply to test patrons at the door.
Testing and vaccines are two important tools that will allow us to safely live with this virus. After too many stumbles, the Biden administration must acknowledge the essential role of routine testing and do whatever it takes to make it a reality. Now.