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The White House soft-launches the COVID-19 test request site

The Biden administration on Tuesday quietly launched its website for Americans to request free COVID-19 tests at home, a day before the site was scheduled to officially go online.

The website, COVIDTests.gov, now contains a link to "All Homes in the United States" to access an order form operated by the US Postal Service. People can order four home tests per. residential address to be provided by the postal service. It marks President Joe Biden's recent move to address criticism of low inventory and long lines for testing during a nationwide increase in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the website was in "beta testing" and was operating with a "limited capacity" prior to its official launch. The website will be officially launched in the middle of the morning on Wednesday, Psaki said.

There were isolated reports Tuesday afternoon about issues related to the site's address verification tool that incorrectly enforced the limit of four per. household on apartment buildings and other multi-unit dwellings. A spokesman for the postal service said in a statement that the error "occurred in a small percentage of orders." He said any user in need of assistance could submit a service request at emailus.usps.com/s/the-postal-store-inquiry or contact a help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.

FILE - Youngstown City Health Department employee Faith Terreri grabs two COVID-19 test kits at home to be handed out during a December 30, 2021 distribution event in Youngstown, Ohio. The Biden administration quietly launched its website for on Tuesday

At times on Tuesday, more than 750,000 people accessed the website at the same time, according to government data tracking data, but it was not immediately known how many orders were placed.

Psaki added that the administration expected an "error or two" but had IT experts from across the government working to make the site ready.

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Biden announced last month that the United States would buy 500 million home tests to launch the program, and on Thursday the president announced that he was doubling the order to 1 billion tests.

But Americans should not expect a quick turnaround in orders, and they will need to plan and request the tests well in advance before meeting federal guidelines for when to use a test.

The White House said that "tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of order" through the USPS, which reports delivery times of 1-3 days for its premium parcel service on the continental United States.

Officials stressed that the federal website is only one way for people to obtain COVID-19 tests, and the lack of home test kits has shown signs of relief as more supply has entered the market.

Since Saturday, private insurance companies have been required to cover the cost of quick home tests, allowing Americans to be reimbursed for tests they buy at pharmacies and online retailers. It covers up to eight tests per month.

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The technical flaws that bothered President Barack Obama's administration with the rollout of the HealthCare.gov Web site in 2013 should not be a problem for the COVID-19 test site, in part because it's so much simpler, said Alex Howard, director of Digital Democracy Project, an open government watchdog group. Howard said the new site is also simpler than the Vaccines.gov site - for finding nearby vaccine clinics and pharmacies - which was already successfully launched by the Biden administration last year.

Howard said the task of requesting someone else's address is straightforward, especially compared to the Obama-era health insurance website, which involved purchasing according to different health plans and authenticating a secure transaction. The challenge of hosting a high-demand website application is also a "solved problem" in the private sector, he said.

"My expectation is the US Digital Service, and all the vendors they work with will be able to handle this," he said. "That's the least difficult part of this."

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Two technology companies that often work with the federal government - Microsoft and Accenture - on Tuesday referred questions about the website to the postal service. Amazon, a major cloud provider for U.S. agencies, did not respond to requests for comment.

Howard said the hardest part of the project is not the website, but the physical distribution of kits.

"I do not remember when the federal government last sent something like this to anyone who was not a tax document," he said.

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