The White House gets testy over its coronavirus testing regime

·6 min read

For much her tenure as White House press secretary, Jen Psaki has gained fans in Democratic circles for her combative responses to questions they see as slanted (and often are), with her jousting partner often being Fox News.

But Psaki on Monday deployed some exasperated sarcasm at an odd - and perhaps revealing - time.

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NPR's Mara Liasson pressed Psaki on the continued hurdles Americans face in getting rapid, at-home coronavirus tests. The administration recently announced people with private health insurance would be reimbursed for the tests, which often cost between $20 and $30 for a pair.

"That's kind of complicated, though," Liasson noted. "Why not just make them free and give them out to - and have them available everywhere?"

Psaki shot back sarcastically: "Should we just send one to every American?"

After Liasson suggested that maybe this was actually a good idea, Psaki responded, "Then what happens if you - if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?"

It was a very defensive answer. Part of the reason for it might have been Psaki's recent history with Liasson, which included another tense exchange just last week on Biden's tax plan. But it also seemed to betray what the White House has to know remains a problem in what President Joe Biden promised would be a much steadier, more robust pandemic response than we saw under President Donald Trump.

As plenty noted after the exchange, it's not like sending free tests to everyone is some unthinkable idea. The United Kingdom allows people to mail-order seven tests at a time, free of charge. Singapore has sent not one but six free rapid tests to every household.

Other countries have also made rapid tests significantly more accessible and cheaper than they have been here. To wit:

- - -

--Germany deployed widespread, free pop-up testing as early as March (though it has recently ended the practice in an effort to get more people vaccinated)

--At-home tests still cost only a few dollars or less in Germany, as well as other countries like France, Belgium and India.

--Canada has sent free rapid tests to businesses.

- - -

As anyone who has sought rapid testing for themselves or a loved one in recent weeks can probably attest, the hurdles here remain much more significant than in many - though not all - comparable countries. When one needs to shell out $10 to $15 for a given test and might want or need to repeat the test or test multiple family members, the cost can quickly add up. And that's if you can find the tests in the first place, which has also been an obstacle.

A logical consequence is that people who might otherwise conduct at-home tests could opt against it and proceed not knowing if they might have tested positive for the virus.

There are many reasons the reality of rapid testing elsewhere hasn't become reality here, as The Washington Post and ProPublica have detailed. Psaki pointed to some perhaps-valid ones on Monday, including the relatively few rapid at-home tests that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"Every country is going to do that differently," she said. "And I was just noting that, again, our tests go through the FDA approval process. That's not the same process that - it doesn't work that way in every single country."

Psaki added that "we have eight tests that have been approved by the FDA here. We see that as the gold standard. Whether all of those tests [in other countries] would meet that standard is a question for the scientists and medical experts, but I don't suspect they would."

That fewer number of approved tests also results in fewer available tests, especially as supply chains struggle to keep up. In September, the administration announced a plan to spend $2 billion to send 280 million rapid tests to a range of facilities. Even at the time, though, this meant about one test per American - the number Psaki suggests might be available to hypothetically send to every American today.

The United States isn't alone in its slower rollout of rapid testing; Australia approved its first rapid at-home tests just a couple months ago. And they became available only in recent weeks - at similar costs as in the United States. (That's before our new reimbursement plan, which is slated to begin in January but isn't available to everyone, including those on Medicare and Medicaid. It's estimated to cover roughly 150 million people.)

There are also certainly drawbacks to less-reliable tests, in that they might give people a false sense of security or might deliver false positives that disrupt people's lives unnecessarily. And there have been problems in countries like Germany that have deployed widely available and free testing, including allegations of embezzlement and incorrectly administered tests.

But the disconnect between the United States and some other similarly situated countries on this front remains something that cuts against the promises of the Biden presidency and raises very real questions about its ability to deliver a steady response. Biden has hailed expanded and readily available testing as a crucial element of that response.

In October 2020, at the tail end of the presidential campaign, Biden said that we needed "faster, cheaper screening tests that you could take right at home or in school. Look, what we have right now isn't anywhere near good enough."

Even as recently as September, Biden said, "From the start, America has failed to do enough covid-19 testing."

It wasn't clear whether he meant lump in today with the period in which "America has failed" on the testing front. But Psaki's answer Monday reinforced that these questions about rapid at-home testing and the intermittent steps being taken to further the effort are increasingly difficult to answer when compared with other parts of the world, which Liasson mentioned in her question and which many health experts cited when criticizing Psaki's response.

There is no question that the testing regime under Biden's predecessor merited plenty of skepticism. Trump even suggested repeatedly that there should be less testing, which he clearly worried made his pandemic performance look bad. His own adviser Deborah Birx recently testified that this indeed led to less testing are a crucial juncture.

But just being better than one's predecessor on a given issue isn't the standard for presidents. And this is an issue that continues to severely test the Biden administration, as it effectively conceded Monday.

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