The Website, COVIDTests.gov, allows people to order four home tests per. household and have them delivered by post. But the tests do not come until seven to 12 days, after omicron cases are expected to peak in many parts of the United States
The White House also announced Wednesday that it will begin making 400 million N95 masks available free of charge at pharmacies and local health centers. Both initiatives represent the kind of public investment that has long been seen in parts of Europe and Asia, but delayed in the United States.
Experts say the plan to distribute 1 billion tests is a good first step, but it should become a regular part of the pandemic's response. In the same way that it has made vaccines free and abundant, the government must use its purchasing power to ensure a stable test supply, they say.
"The playbook for rapid testing should be similar to the playbook for vaccines," said Zoe McLaren, a health economist at the University of Maryland. "They're both things that help keep things down and help keep COVID under control."
The US mixed up its initial rollout of government-made COVID-19 tests in the early days of the outbreak and has never really gotten back on track. While private companies now produce more than 250 million home tests a month, it is still not enough to allow most Americans to test themselves frequently.
The Biden administration focused most of its early COVID-19 efforts on vaccine deployment. As infections declined last spring, demand for testing declined and many manufacturers began closing factories. Only in September - after the delta increase was in full swing - the Biden administration announced its first federal contracts designed to kick-start home test production.
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Countries like the UK and Germany bought and distributed billions of the tests shortly after they became available last year.
"If you leave the manufacturers to their own device, they will just react to what is happening right now," said Dr. Amy Karger, a test specialist at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "And then there is not much bandwidth if something surprising happens, as it did with omicron."
Even with government intervention, the United States faces a massive test burden because of its population, which is five times larger than Britain's.
The United States would need 2.3 billion tests a month for all teens and adults to test themselves twice a week. That is more than double the number of home tests that the administration plans to distribute over several months.
Dr. David Michaels, a former member of President Joe Biden's COVID-19 advisory board, said the administration is likely to have to request more federal money to fund testing in the coming years.
"Congress was willing to put trillions of dollars into infrastructure primarily to improve transportation. This is infrastructure," said Michaels, a public health professor at George Washington University. "We need billions more in testing to save lives and sustain the economy."
So far, the testing will probably continue to be strained. And even the most bullish advocates say the United States will have to carefully weigh where home tests can have the greatest benefit - for example, by handing them out to those most vulnerable to the virus.
"The fact is, we just do not have that kind of mass testing capacity in the United States," said Dr. Michael Mina, chief science officer of the home testing service eMed, who once called for spending billions of tests a month to crush the pandemic. "We should now think about how we can use these tests in a strategic way. We do not want to just dilute them beyond the population."
Mina was recently a professor at Harvard and has informally advised federal officials on testing.
Mina and others recognize that widespread use of rapid testing is not without drawbacks. Results from home tests are rarely reported to the health authorities, giving an incomplete picture of the spread and size of the pandemic.
More than 2 million test results a day are reported to US health authorities, but almost all come from laboratory-tested tests. Some researchers estimate that the actual number of daily tests is around 5 million when taken into account at home.
Brumback reported from Atlanta.
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