Feds expand free COVID tests, hospital support ahead of holidays
Early testing can improve treatment for COVID-19 and reduce the spread of the disease.
With the winter holidays approaching, the Biden administration released a COVID-19 preparedness plan Thursday announcing access to free tests and vaccines as well as hospital staff support and equipment in anticipation of increased disease transmission.
“With updated COVID-19 vaccines, at-home tests, and effective oral antiviral treatments widely available, the administration encourages every individual American to have a plan for how to prevent and respond to COVID-19 this winter,” the White House said.
Nationwide, COVID-19 cases have been rising over the last month, with 458,986 people testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 last week. This number is likely an undercount due to a decline in testing and unreported at-home tests.
Over the last week an estimated 2,981 Americans died from the respiratory disease, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 5,069 people were hospitalized daily for the illness adding up to 31,538 current COVID-19 patients nationwide.
“Generally, I think the plan is reasonable,” said Joe Gerald, associate professor of public health policy and management at the University of Arizona. “COVID-19 remains an important health risk to Americans and it is adding considerable burden to our health care system, so we need some kind of coordinated national policy to both try to reduce the health risks but also to make sure our health system is appropriately resourced to address winter surges.”
In addition to monitoring the development of Omicron subvariants, the federal government has assembled medical personnel teams to help alleviate local health care strain and is ready to employ the National Guard where necessary.
The Strategic National Stockpile has “hundreds of millions of N-95 masks, billions of gloves, tens of millions of gowns, and over 100,000 ventilators” to deploy to communities in need, the White House said.
Since January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has distributed an estimated 270 million of 400 million N-95 respirators earmarked for local communities. Participating pharmacies and grocery stores are encouraged to collaborate with communities to distribute the remaining masks.
Testing remains important not only to inform quarantine lengths, but also because antiviral medication like Paxlovid can reduce severity of disease with early treatment.
In addition to supporting 15,000 free community testing sites across the nation, Americans can access free COVID-19 tests under Medicare. Health insurance providers are required to cover eight at-home tests for each insured person, accessible at pharmacies or online.
For a limited time, American households can also order four free tests through COVIDTests.gov which will ship the week of Dec. 19. Individuals without access to the Internet can order tests via phone 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489).
In addition to testing for COVID-19 when symptomatic, the government recommended testing before and after holiday travel, as well as when visiting immunocompromised individuals.
The Biden plan continues to encourage Americans to obtain COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
"The Covid-19 vaccines save lives,” said Health and Human Servives Secretary Xavier Becerra in statement. "We have seen COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths increase in prior winters, and it does not have to be that way this year. We now have updated COVID-19 vaccines to protect communities against the Omicron strain.”
Becerra sent a letter to state governors earlier this month encouraging them to prepare ahead of the triple onslaught of COVID-19, the flu and RSV.
Public health experts encourage the use of masks and social distancing in indoor public spaces to reduce the spread of illness.
“People don't want to hear it, and they don't want to do it, but what we learned from the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic is how important the preventative measures are for reducing the burden of respiratory illness,” said Gerald at the University of Arizona. “ RSV, and influenza essentially disappeared for two years, and it was largely due to the efforts we were undertaking to slow the transmission of COVID-19: social distancing, good hand hygiene and wearing a mask.”
In addition to COVID-19, the CDC tracked concerning increases in flu hospitalizations and RSV particularly among vulnerable populations.
“COVID-19 remains a significant public health problem so I think it merits special emphasis,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We are also seeing a lot of influenza and other respiratory viruses, which are collectively putting a strain on health systems,” Rivers added. “Many of the measures the administration are taking against COVID-19, like expanding access to masks and mobilizing the stockpile, will be helpful for other respiratory viruses as well.”
As of Dec. 8, more than 10% of weekly deaths were attributed to pneumonia, the flu or COVID-19, well above the epidemic threshold of 6.5% established by the National Center for Health Statistics.