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For at-home COVID tests, free order day is coming

A new federal program plans to ship free rapid tests to Americans starting Jan. 19.

As of Wednesday, Americans will be able to order free at-home COVID-19 tests through a government program aimed at addressing a nationwide lack of access to affordable and convenient testing.

The Biden administration will make half a billion at-home rapid tests available for online order at COVIDTests.gov on Jan. 19 and is in the process of purchasing another half billion tests. There will also be a phone line for anyone unable to order tests online.

To start, every residential address has a limit of four free tests through the program, with tests expected to ship within seven to 12 days, according to an announcement from the White House.

At-home rapid tests are recommended by the CDC and FDA to be used by people with symptoms of COVID-19, at least five days after close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and when gathering indoors with unvaccinated and at-risk people.

"The administration is taking a number of steps to ensure this program reaches our hardest-hit and highest-risk communities. 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, particularly during this Omicron surge," the White House said in a statement.

Biden's policy requiring private insurers to cover the cost of over-the-counter tests took effect Friday meanwhile as the shipment date was being announced.

That program requires private insurers and group health plans to cover up to eight free tests per-person per-month, but hinges on people being able to find over-the-counter tests in the first place — something has become increasingly difficult in recent months.

The White House said in a statement that millions of tests have already been sent to local health care centers and clinics to ramp up testing availability, and the administration is working on making more available for purchase.

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"In December, there were more than 300 million at-home, rapid tests available in the U.S. market, up from 24 million in August — a more than 10-fold rise. This month, the number of at-home, rapid tests available to the U.S. market will rise to 375 million — in addition to the free tests available through COVIDTests.gov," the statement explains.

The push for testing access comes as the Omicron variant continues to sweep the country, setting records for COVID-19 case counts and straining hospital capacities.

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The push for testing access comes as the Omicron variant continues to sweep the country, setting records for COVID-19 case counts and straining hospital capacities.