Starting Jan. 19, the Biden administration made half a billion COVID-19 testing kits available to be shipped to Americans nationwide for free. The effort is meant to reduce the spread of the virus in the wake of the Omicron surge.
Each household is entitled to four free tests. But many Americans have found it difficult to access the free tests — from students on college campuses, to Native American people living on reservations, to those in households larger than four members.
“The Administration is taking a number of steps to ensure this program reaches our hardest-hit and highest-risk communities,” says a fact sheet about the program posted to the White House website. “This includes prioritizing processing orders to households experiencing the highest social vulnerability and in communities that have experienced a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases and deaths.”
But many Indigenous reservations are in rural areas without access to postal service or cell service, making access to these free tests nearly impossible.
“We appreciate the Biden-Harris administration’s proactive approach by providing free at-home test kits,” says Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez, according to VOA. “But we need more action to address the unique circumstances for tribal nations and families.”
E.J. John is a Navajo Nation citizen as well as a research analyst at Arizona State University who spoke to VOA about what makes the system difficult specifically to Native people living in Navajo communities.
“Anything that requires you to log on to a website and put in an address, whether for shopping online or trying to sign up for auto insurance, it’s a challenge,” John said. “Even where there is cellphone coverage, you’re lucky to have phones that just allow talk and text.”
Nez also expressed that it’s still been difficult to get basic pandemic necessities, such as hand sanitizer, masks and testing kits.
Access to COVID-19 testing has already been a challenge for Native people living on reservations throughout the pandemic. In 2020, NPR reported findings that a lack of communication between states and tribes made contact tracing difficult. This meant that many people living on reservations weren’t alerted when they were exposed to the virus.
Many Americans are amiss from benefiting from the Biden administration’s efforts because of technicalities. Students living on campus at SUNY New Paltz are part of this group.
When students try to order to campus, a notice comes up that says, “The address you entered is listed as a business address in our system. Currently, we can only ship free at-home tests to valid residential addresses.”
Fortunately, the school is offering PCR testing on campus five days a week in Awosting Hall that is free through insurance.
“I don’t understand why the school address doesn’t work when I’m trying to get a free COVID test delivered by the post office,” says Johnny Dimaio, a second-year computer science major. “I live here for the majority of the year and that would be the most convenient and safe thing for anyone to do.”
On the government’s COVID-19 testing website, it states that although people living in apartment units or college dormitories may be having initial issues getting tests shipped to them, they should file a service request on their website or dial 1-800-ASK-UPS (1-800-275-8777).
Along with this announcement, the Biden administration also announced that private health insurance companies would be required to cover at-home tests and made 10 million more tests available to schools across the country, per month, according to the White House’s website.
Medicare will not cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests, though. Medicare users can only use the COVIDTests.gov option to order their four free tests.
Another issue some have with the current system is that everyone who wishes to order tests to their household can only get an order of four. This means those who live alone will receive the same amount of tests as those who live in a family of eight people.
Since the administration took office, the amount of tests available has increased more than tenfold. In August, there were 24 million at-home COVID tests available on the U.S. market — as of January, there are 375 million available. Biden’s administration will also allocate ten million tests to schools per month to make in-person instruction safer.
(This was a major bounce back after the administration struggled to secure enough testing in December).
“This program will ensure that Americans have at-home, rapid COVID-19 tests available in the weeks and months ahead — in addition to the number of other ways they can get tested,” states the White House website.
To order tests, people can place an order online at COVIDTests.gov or call 1-800-232-0233.