WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced Thursday it would relaunch a program that provided free coronavirus testing to U.S. households through the Postal Service, part of a new government push to stave off rising virus cases and hospitalizations as winter approaches.
The program, which was halted in September after distributing more than 600 million tests, is restarting after federal authorities looked into what the White House called “existing and limited funding.” Households will be able to order four tests from covidtests.gov, with shipments beginning next week.
The tests are one part of a broader Covid-19 “winter preparedness plan” the White House rolled out on Thursday, reflecting growing anxiety over a cold-weather surge in virus cases in across the country. Cases have increased by around 55% over the past two weeks, while deaths have increased by around 65% over the same period. Hospitalizations rose more than 20%, adding pressure to medical centers already awash with cases of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV
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Two subvariants of Omicron, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, have largely driven the rise in coronavirus cases. They now account for about two-thirds of cases in the United States and can evade earlier immune defenses more easily than other recent variants.
The Biden administration has urged Americans to update their protection by securing one of the reworded boosters introduced in September, but reaction to the new vaccines has been lukewarm. Only about 14% of Americans ages 5 and older have received an updated reminder. Among those aged 65 and over, an age group that includes those particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, barely a third of people have received one of the new vaccines.
Under the winter plan, the administration said it would expand those eligible to vaccinate the elderly to include nursing home staff.
The home testing program reopens as lawmakers on Capitol Hill work to finalize a spending package to keep government funding going through September. The Biden administration has asked for more than $9 billion in additional funding for the pandemic response, but Republicans have resisted calls for more Covid-19 spending, arguing the administration has demonstrated it can reallocate federal funds for virus-related needs.
The new round of at-home testing is being funded with funds from the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill passed last year, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters late Wednesday. on condition of anonymity. Renewing the program risks riling Republicans by suggesting the federal government still has money it can draw on for the pandemic response, despite its pleas for more.
The Biden administration began offering free at-home testing through the Postal Service in January after demand for coronavirus testing skyrocketed with the arrival of the highly contagious variant of Omicron. President Biden has been sharply criticized for not acting sooner to secure testing for Americans, even as federal officials have argued they have acted aggressively in providing it, including for schools and colleges. long-term care facilities.
The government continued to operate the home testing program throughout the year, allowing Americans to order additional sets of tests. But the White House suspended the program in September, citing a lack of funding.
Americans with health insurance and under Medicare can still get eight home tests for free each month. As part of its announcement on Thursday, the White House said it would distribute home tests to thousands of federally supported seniors’ facilities and hundreds of food banks.
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