White House brings back free at-home COVID test orders

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Update: This program is expected to start accepting orders again on Monday, Sept. 25. Here are some other options for people looking for free COVID tests. Read the latest here — our earlier story is below.

American households will now be able to request four more free at-home COVID tests from the federal government. The White House announced it was reopening orders as part of a new "winter preparedness plan," as cases and hospitalizations are rising around the country.

One request from each household will be accepted for a "limited round of ordering this winter" through COVIDtests.gov. The first tests are set to be shipped out by the U.S. Postal Service during the week of December 19.

Here's how to request free at-home COVID tests

"Procurements are ongoing and so I can't give you exact numbers on how this is going to land, but we feel confident that we are going to have enough tests to get through this round, four per household, in the coming weeks," a senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday.

The move revives a program that the Biden administration had paused in early September, citing a long-stalled request in Congress for funding the federal pandemic response.

At the time, officials said the decision to pause the program was in order to "ensure we have a limited supply of tests available in the fall" for a potential surge.

A White House spokesperson said Wednesday that this winter's shipments would be supplied by a mix of newly purchased tests and the remaining supply contracted for the original rounds of requests. The administration official told reporters that the tests were paid for by American Rescue Plan funds, as part of "hard choices" reshuffled from other priorities.

"We're able to reopen COVIDtests.gov for a limited round because, in the absence of congressional funding, we've acted within our limited resources to buy more at-home tests for our national stockpile," the official said.

More free at-home tests will also be deployed to federally subsidized housing for seniors and food banks.

The official stressed that the new round of orders comes on top of other free testing initiatives rolled out earlier in the pandemic that remain available to Americans, like the federal requirement that private health insurers cover the cost of eight tests per month.

"We have the tools"

This move comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations have climbed in several regions, especially among seniors, though they remain a fraction of the levels seen at the height of the Omicron variant's surge last winter. Cases have also accelerated in nursing homes to levels not seen since early February.

A growing number of communities, including New York City, have issued renewed pleas for residents to wear masks indoors, as COVID-19 metrics have climbed into the CDC's "high" tier.

On the vaccination front, the pace of new shots administered has largely stalled nationwide. Just 15.5% of adults have gotten their updated COVID booster shot.

In nursing homes, figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday showed just 45% of residents have gotten the latest booster through the end of November. That was only 3 percentage points better than a month prior.

Nursing home staff will now be able to vaccinate residents, officials said, and the White House is releasing a "winter playbook" to raise awareness of steps facilities can take to curb the virus this season for these at-risk Americans.

"We have the tools we need to prevent deaths and severe illness, and we want all nursing homes to take action now," the official said.

Other moves announced this week as part of the White House's plan also echo those from earlier in the pandemic, like "pre-positioning critical supplies" from the national stockpile and readying medical surge teams.

However, the Biden administration stopped short of fully reviving all of their initiatives from last winter, like the distribution of millions of free N-95 masks to pharmacies and grocery stores.

Many are still available unused in stores, the White House says, and the Biden administration plans to provide guidance to retailers "so that any spare inventory can be utilized through distribution to even more locations."

"We have a whole series of tools we use for mitigation, preventing serious illness, preventing infections. Masks should be one of them. They shouldn't be exalted. They should not be diminished. They are one of the tools we have. People should use them when they want to," Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House's COVID-19 coordinator, said Tuesday at an event hosted by "Health Affairs."

Jha said that masking for COVID-19 had gotten "unnecessarily complex" and that he hoped that "turning down the temperature" on the topic might reduce fights over masking.

"We don't ask and demand people use all the tools, but the more you use, the safer you will be," Jha added.

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