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For Americans, free rapid tests and high-quality masks are finally here. As of Wednesday, all Americans can log on to a website and order free coronavirus tests to take at home. And as soon as next week, the White House is planning to distribute 400 million N95 masks to thousands of pharmacies and other locations that will be free.
In remarks delivered Wednesday, President Biden said that the last year was one of challenges but also of “enormous progress.” The expansion of supplies was greeted by many in the United States, where both tests and masks were largely only available from private companies — with a price tag to match — until this week.
But the move also raises the question: It’s two years into the pandemic. Why is America only making progress on this now?
The issue can’t just be money. The U.S. federal government has invested massively in fighting the pandemic. Vaccine initiative Operation Warp Speed is estimated to have cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $14 billion. The fiscal stimulus put in to boost the economy last year came to $1.9 trillion — among the largest in the world and, as I wrote at the time, “larger than most countries’ annual economic output, running slightly behind Italy and ahead of Brazil.”
And it may not be an aversion to giving consumers something free. Coronavirus vaccines are provided at no cost to the public. Treatment for covid-19 has also been covered for the uninsured, as has the slow-but-accurate PCR testing (insurance companies that had waived fees for the insured quietly resumed billing last year, however).
Biden is prioritizing rapid testing to counter omicron. Other countries are far ahead.
But many countries moved far faster than the United States on masks and at-home testing. Britain began offering mass rapid testing in April 2021. As my colleague Claire Parker wrote last month, the country became a “poster child” for the practice, as “taking a rapid test before attending a wedding, sports event or private dinner party became the norm for many people.”
Some other nations, including Germany and Singapore, also distributed free at-home tests last year. And even when they aren’t free, rapid tests have long been far cheaper and more easily available outside of the United States.
When it comes to masks, the United States may again be a laggard. Belgium, France and Turkey all offered free surgical masks in the early days of the pandemic, while the South Korean government stepped in during an early “mask crisis” to buy high-quality KF94 masks from manufacturers and ship them to pharmacies at a vastly discounted price in spring 2020. In Singapore, a nonprofit run by the state sovereign fund has supplied N95s free since last year.“
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It may be that politics got in the way. Both masks and, to a lesser degree, rapid testing have been the subject of fierce partisan wrangling in the United States.
Plans to send 650 million reusable cloth masks to every U.S. household as early as April 2020 were quietly nixed behind the scenes under the Trump administration. One official later told The Post that the problem was a presidential feud with Postal Service leadership and worries that masks would create “concern or panic.”
The Trump administration was also assailed by critics for its handling of testing during the pandemic, with a widely touted September 2020 announcement about millions of rapid tests being deployed to nursing homes “plagued by poor communication, false results and a frustrating lack of planning,” according to accounts from state leaders to The Post.
But the situation hardly changed when the Biden administration entered office a year ago. When the White House announced a plan to reimburse people with private health insurance for rapid tests, press secretary Jen Psaki sarcastically shot back at a reporter who asked why they weren’t free: “Should we just send one to every American?”
Well, yes. And the dismissive stance angered many. “That kind of lack of imagination about how health care can work is beyond frustrating to witness once you’ve experienced a system that takes a different approach — one that’s both simple to navigate and free at the point of service,” freelance writer April Wallace wrote for The Post from Scotland in response.
The problems were not purely partisan. The United States’ decentralized political system and lack of universal health-care coverage contrasts sharply with other nations. And despite the ethos of Operation Warp Speed on other issues, the U.S. federal government often seems to be running at a snail’s pace.
Critics say that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was too slow to approve rapid antigen tests, part of a broader regulatory process that can take far longer than in other countries. The Wall Street Journal has reported on how U.S. companies have shipped hundreds of thousands of tests abroad after waiting several months for domestic authorization.
The FDA has also been accused of being too slow to approve mRNA vaccines like those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, with some estimates suggesting the delays cost thousands of lives.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was also slow to recommend masking, and initially recommended the use of cloth masks for healthy people in April 2020. (Upon announcing the guidance, Trump immediately said he himself would probably not choose to mask up.) This month, the CDC offered new guidance that said such cloth coverings offered the least protection against omicron, coming into line with real-world research that such masks did not prevent the spread of virus as effectively as surgical masks or N95 masks.
Writing for the New York Times in April 2020, E. Tammy Kim observed that countries including “South Korea and Taiwan responded to their mask crises with significant market interventions. America needs to do the same. The U.S. government, and state and municipal bodies, should immediately enter into large-scale contracts to produce masks that can be sold at an affordable, standard price,” Kim continued.
It took almost two years for that to actually happen.
The focus on vaccination may have been another problem. The U.S. investment in vaccine development and manufacturing under Operation Warp Speed was a major move with global implications. But while the United States has not seen the vaccine shortages that are found in many nations, it lags behind many peers in rates of vaccination.
Now, omicron’s ability to evade vaccine’s immune response is further proof that the United States cannot vaccinate itself out of the pandemic. Instead, like other countries, the United States is coming around to the idea that it should have every tool at its disposal, including new therapeutic drugs like Pfizer’s Paxlovid but also masks and testing.
“We’ve purchased 20 million of these new Pfizer pills — more than any country in the world,” Biden said Wednesday of the pills, which are supposed to be taken after a positive test result. “The bottom line on covid-19 is that we’re in a better place than we’ve been thus far, clearly better than a year ago.”
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Lawmakers have urged the FTC to prevent rapid-test price gouging amid increased demand due to the omicron surge. This week the Biden administration announced that American adults can get three free N95 masks each as at-home covid tests are now available via a federal website. Follow live updates for more.
State of the pandemic
Omicron variant | Cases and deaths in the U.S. | Empty grocery shelves
How to stay safe
At-home tests | Symptoms | Booster shots | Masks
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