To great fanfare, the Biden administration just launched a website where Americans can request at-home COVID-19 tests, delivered by the U.S. Postal Service free of charge.
It’s a sad commentary on the competence of the federal government that the successful launch of a website counts as a big win these days. It’s also a case of too little, too late.
Let’s consider the larger illogic of this White House gambit. As Omicron surged and provoked a nationwide stampede for testing, the government decided to order a billion rapid tests — and thereby ate up precious supplies that could’ve restocked pharmacy shelves.
Now people have to wait seven to 12 days for the post office to bring them those tests, along with their daily allotment of junk mail.
With those obviously tardy shipping times, many of the tests won’t go out until after the omicron wave has crested. Cases are already plummeting in the areas hit by Omicron first. Many people will receive their tests long after their COVID-19 infections have come and gone — or after the threat posed by Omicron has largely passed.
The government’s ineptitude stretches further. The single best way to boost the supply of rapid tests is to issue emergency use authorizations for proven tests from seasoned manufacturers. The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done that. It’s approved just 13 rapid antigen tests for home use. At least 36 are available in Europe.
One company submitted a test for approval in March 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic in the United States. Its application went nowhere, so it transitioned to other pursuits. Experts today agree that the test “approache[s] what is now considered acceptable for over-the-counter tests,” according to reporting from ProPublica.
Testing isn’t the only example of the federal government’s painfully slow response to the pandemic. Consider the updated masking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said that people “may choose” to wear N95 or KN95 masks to protect themselves better against Omicron.
It’s been apparent that high-quality respirators are more effective than cloth masks since the pandemic’s beginning. Initially, the government said it was trying to preserve high-quality masks for healthcare personnel. But the United States made 1 billion such masks last year. And as of earlier this month, the federal government had about 750 million high-quality masks in its stockpile. So shortages haven’t been an issue for some time.
So why wait months and months to change up this recommendation — long after many people had already decided to upgrade their masks themselves?
The feds were also late to the party on booster shots, which offer the best defense available against omicron. CDC head Rochelle Walensky had to overrule her own advisory panel in the middle of the night to authorize boosters for most adults. The American public is still paying the price for the government’s indecision.
If there’s one unvarying theme across two years of COVID-19, it’s that the government has always found ways to make our public health worse. Instead of approving rapid tests, it wrapped manufacturers in bureaucratic red tape. Instead of telling the obvious truth about which masks are best, it played armchair psychologist. And instead of quickly recommending boosters, the feds muddled through weeks of blather, leaving the public in the dark.
The federal government has spent much of the pandemic trying to clean up messes of its own making. Better late than never is not an approach to governance we should accept.
Sally Pipes is president, CEO and Thomas W. Smith fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.