THE ISSUE: "Rapid COVID-19 tests are considered a critical tool for bringing the pandemic under control by identifying active infections and minimizing outbreaks," LNP | LancasterOnline's Nicole C. Brambila reported in Thursday's edition. But it's incredibly difficult to find over-the-counter rapid tests, which can be self-administered in the home, in Lancaster County. "None of the pharmacy chains LNP | LancasterOnline contacted in Lancaster County — CVS, Giant, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart and Weis — had home tests on their shelves Wednesday," Brambila reported.
From the very start of this pandemic nearly 19 months ago, public health officials understood some of the steps we could take to help lessen the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Quarantining. Social distancing. Wearing masks. Washing hands. Contact tracing. And testing.
Yet we as a nation, for reasons outlined in countless editorials and news stories, have struggled at accomplishing most of these tasks.
And now more than 695,000 Americans are dead of the virus. Nearly 2,000 additional Americans are dying every day of COVID-19, according to the seven-day average calculated by The Washington Post.
Today we want to focus on one reason we have failed to defeat this virus: Testing.
Specifically, having sufficient rapid COVID-19 tests that can be used in homes, schools or the workplace.
Simply put, the federal government under both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden failed to do all it could to make rapid COVID-19 tests widely available in the United States. Only recently, the Biden administration announced it would deploy the Defense Production Act to manufacture at-home tests. But that should have happened on Day One of Biden’s presidency.
The only conclusion we can make is that the Biden administration has failed to adequately deploy, as Brambila wrote, “a critical tool for bringing the pandemic under control.”
The rapid testing situation is so dire that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an official advisory about the "temporary shortage" on Sept. 2, recommending instead "the use of laboratory-based testing whenever possible."
But laboratory-based testing, even when the turnaround is only one day, defeats the point of rapid testing, which is to give individuals and families immediate information they can use toward decision-making that could affect others in their circle. During its contagious stage, the coronavirus, especially its highly transmissible delta variant, does not wait for test results to be returned by a lab.
Also, this crucial shortage hasn’t been temporary. The CDC advisory was issued a month ago.
“The significant demand for COVID-19 testing locally reflects a national trend, driven by continued increases in COVID-19 cases, testing requirements at schools and businesses, and other factors,” Marcie Brody, a spokesperson for Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Brambila in an email. “That demand has led to some extended wait times for testing results here and nationwide.”
This is not a moment in which we can afford such wait times.
The Biden administration should have foreseen this need and ensured there was no drop-off in production or availability of rapid testing kits, which is exactly what happened over the summer. State governments, too, could have used some of the millions in federal COVID-19 relief funds they’re sitting on to proactively order rapid testing kits, and thus they share some of the blame. But this problem starts at the top; there should have been firmer action from the White House as part of the pandemic response.
Now, unacceptably, “manufacturers warn (that) ramping up production could take weeks after having scaled back during the summer when infections and demand plunged,” Brambila reported Thursday.
Here’s another problem: When they can be found, over-the-counter test kits cost between $15 and more than $100, Brambila noted.
There should not be an economic barrier right now to accessing these at-home tests. Just as COVID-19 vaccination shots are free, rapid testing kits should be, too. One’s level of vulnerability to the deadly virus shouldn’t be determined by one’s economic status.
Moving forward, the federal government should aim to make rapid COVID-19 test kits widely and freely available until the pandemic is under control. They should be sent to every household. To every school. Still-unused money from COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress under Trump and Biden could go toward making this a reality.
There has been movement on this front, but it will take time to see results. In early September, the Biden administration’s "Path out of the pandemic" action plan included mobilizing industry to accelerate the production of rapid COVID-19 tests (including at-home tests); compelling big retailers Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to sell at-home tests "at-cost for the next three months"; and sending "25 million free at-home rapid tests to 1,400 community health centers and hundreds of food banks," to help ensure the availability of tests to Americans of all income levels.
That’s progress, but it’s basically playing catch-up. Crucial weeks of work to contain the pandemic have been lost. And, again, we believe tests should be free and as widely available as possible right now. Wholesale cost still represents a barrier.
These obstacles were unnecessary. This should have been a priority ongoing aspect of the government’s response the moment reliable rapid testing kits became available last year. We read about their successful deployment for professional sports leagues and Hollywood productions. Essentially, those with money have had the most access to these tests.
That has come at the expense of families. And schools.
At the expense of those who need to travel or safely attend group functions.
At the expense of children.
In an analysis of the United States’ poor pandemic response this week for The Atlantic, Ed Yong asked, "How can a country hope to stay 10 steps ahead of tomorrow’s viruses when it can’t stay one step ahead of today’s?"
We agree fully with that concern. There are so many reasons we have collectively fallen short and allowed this virus to continue killing thousands of Americans per week long after it should have been better contained.
The federal government's failure with COVID-19 rapid test kits is one of them.