Experts commended those steps to encourage mask-wearing and begin to address Americans’ continuing frustration at their inability to find or, in some cases, afford scarce at-home test kits. But they said the website and related efforts are probably coming too late to significantly dampen the wave fueled by the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has infected a record number of people and torn through major metropolitan areas over the past six weeks.
White House officials, who announced the plan to purchase free tests in late December, said the kits would begin going out later this month. Officials are expected to provide more details on the website on Friday.
“This would have been ideal to have before the omicron surge,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We’ve never really had a proper supply of tests and their impact is going to be blunted because they’re going to be available only after the surge has come and gone and we’re at some baseline level.”
Despite forecasts that the omicron surge would soon peak nationwide, the seven-day average of new cases in the United States hovered near 800,000 on Thursday as the variant continued its stampede across the nation. However, the pace of new cases is starting to slow in several states along the Eastern Seaboard that saw the biggest initial increases, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts and D.C.
Twenty-four states in other regions of the country hit new daily records this week. And although the omicron variant may cause less severe disease than the delta variant, the sheer volume of cases has overloaded many hospitals already strapped for staff. The seven-day average of covid-19 hospitalizations ticked up to more than 147,000 on Thursday, while the average daily toll of covid-19 deaths neared 1,800.
Adalja said the testing efforts would still be helpful in parts of the country where omicron has yet to peak. “A lot of the opportunity to blunt the surge or help navigate the surge, that time has largely passed in some of the major cities, but it could benefit in some cities that are off that cycle,” he said.
Biden, who struck a candid tone in his remarks Thursday, maintained that while vaccinated people are getting breakthrough infections from omicron, those are mostly minor. He continued to characterize the growing burden on the nation’s hospitals as “a pandemic of the unvaccinated” because of the far higher risk of severe illness and death to those people.
“Right now, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are testing positive,” he said, “but what happens after that could not be more different.”
It remained unclear on Thursday how exactly the federal website offering free rapid tests would work. When the federal government in 2013 first launched healthcare.gov, the website that allows people to purchase government health plans through the Affordable Care Act, it was an unmitigated disaster. The website crashed within two hours of launching, couldn’t handle large amounts of traffic at once and went far over budget as a result.
Experts said the new website allowing people to request free rapid tests would be far simpler and was unlikely to face similar challenges.
“This is a much less complicated website problem than launching the marketplace insurance plan sign-ups,” said Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases specialist at New York University who advised the Biden administration’s transition team on the covid-19 response.
Some health experts — and Democrats in Congress — worried the effort will leave out vulnerable Americans who lack Internet access. The administration is planning to set up a phone line for those who cannot order them online, a White House official told The Washington Post earlier this week.
The administration has scrambled to address the omicron surge, which seemed to come out of nowhere at Thanksgiving, and faced immense criticism for shortages of rapid tests just before the holidays and hours-long waits at testing clinics in major cities. The White House failed to anticipate the demand for tests during the delta and omicron waves, and neglected to follow up on a proposal from health agency officials in the spring that it purchase millions of rapid tests, as previously reported by The Post.
Still, many experts said it was encouraging to see the White House preparing for possible successive variants even if the increased supply of tests arrives on the later end of this one.
“There will be another one — and we might as well learn our lesson and prepare for the next one appropriately,” said Gounder. “Every time, we’re sort of like, ‘Well, why bother because this is the last surge.’ And I think that’s completely the wrong way to think about it.”
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of Biden’s covid-19 transition advisory board, said the country probably has about three more weeks before the omicron variant starts to wane.
“What’s not available or delivered in that time is not going to make an impact,” Osterholm said. “We have to understand whether it’s people, products or policies, if it isn’t done now and available in the next three weeks, it’s not going to help with this surge.”
Rachel Roubein and Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.