Coronavirus testing appointments can still be hard to come by in many regions across the country and were especially challenging to get during the holidays in many cities. Although the testing system in the United States has worked out some of its initial wrinkles since the pandemic began in full force last spring, it’s still not a well-oiled machine. Wellness 4 Humanity, the company behind the testing kits in Oakland’s vending machines, is trying to make it easier to get a test no matter where you are.
The test results are not immediate — buyers will have to take the kit home, spit in a tube and then FedEx the kit back. For that reason, the company expects more people will use the tests after returning from travel to ensure they haven’t caught the disease, rather than as a prerequisite for flying.
The pandemic so far has largely proved to be a problem that has defied tech’s constant push to solve things quickly. Apple and Google’s virus-tracking systems got off to a rocky start. Visions of tech-fueled pandemic solutions were touted in Silicon Valley, but largely fizzled. At the world’s largest technology show, nearly a year after the pandemic started, the most innovative products on offer were a sticker to track vital signs to detect covid-19 and futuristic masks.
Verily, a health tech sister company of Google, was touted early on as a potential solution to provide widespread testing across the country. But that vision ran up against reality, causing problems and delays. In October, Verily halted its testing program in San Francisco, although it still has others open across the United States.
The testing vending machines come months after the coronavirus began spreading across the country, though the company behind them has been working on testing since the spring. It’s still a necessary piece of the fight to slow the pandemic, scientists say, even though the Atlantic’s Covid Tracking Project found the number of people getting tested has plateaued since a peak in mid-January.
Wellness 4 Humanity is betting that making tests more visible and accessible could help, even if it just makes a small dent. The company got its start in coronavirus testing about eight months ago when it began setting up physical testing sites in Houston. It expanded to corporate testing, including for the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, and now is hoping to make testing as easy as possible so that much of the health-care system can focus elsewhere, said CEO and co-founder Lian Nguyen Pham.
“How do we help alleviate the front lines so they are most focused on vaccinations and the critically ill?” she said.
All machines carry a kit for a saliva PCR test, as well as a FedEx label so the kit can be sent overnight to a lab that Wellness 4 Humanity works with. The company said results come to people’s phones within one to two days.
In Oakland, tests can be purchased directly from the machine. Wellness 4 Humanity added a vending machine inside its office in Manhattan. People can preorder a testing kit online and pick it up at the office, and the company will also ship tests to customers’ homes.
Wellness 4 Humanity plans to open 25 vending machines in the next three weeks and hopes to have 1,000 total in the next month. Interest from airports has spiked this month as local governments establish travel rules that include testing, Nguyen Pham said.
The approach, as hands-off as it seems, has gotten more palatable to people in the past year, she pointed out, because so many have grown accustomed to shopping online and curbside pickup as social distancing measures remain in place.
As long as all the logistics have been worked out, the vending machines are a “nice addition to our testing arsenal,” said Robert Wachter, chair of the University of California at San Francisco’s department of medicine.
It “reminds us that, even with all the discussion about vaccines and variants, testing [along with isolation and notification of contacts] remains a key part of the covid strategy,” Wachter said.
Oakland Airport said in a news release that it is the first airport in the country to get testing vending machines. Some airports, including in Oakland, San Francisco and New York, already have facilities on-site to test people in person.
The airport said in its release that tests will cost between $130 and $150, although the going price is $149 on Wellness 4 Humanity’s site. The machines at the airport are operated by tech company Swyft, which partnered with Wellness 4 Humanity.
But there’s bad news for Hawaii travelers: The Wellness 4 Humanity test cannot be used to enter Hawaii under the state’s strict travel regulations. Because it takes a couple of days to get results, it is intended mostly for people arriving at the airport who want to easily pick up a test after flying in.