Background Press Call on the Rollout of 500 Million Free Tests to American Homes

Published: Fri Jan 14 2022

Via Teleconference

1:36 P.M. EST

MR. MUNOZ: Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us this afternoon to talk about the Biden administration's new plan to begin distributing at-home COVID-19 rapid tests to the American people for free.

As a reminder, this call will be embargoed until 2:30, as is the factsheet that should be in your inbox. And the conversation will be attributable to "senior administration officials."

On this call, we have [senior administration officials]. We'll have some remarks to explain some of the logistics here.

And with that, first, I will kick it to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, Kevin. Testing is a critical tool to help mitigate the spread of COVID. And as you know, there are a number of different kinds of COVID tests in this country. These include lab-based PCR tests, rapid PCR tests, and rapid point-of-care antigen tests, available through healthcare providers and at over 20,000 free testing sites nationwide.

Public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that Americans should consider using at-home rapid tests in the following situations: First, if they begin to have symptoms consistent with COVID; second, at least five days after close contact with someone who has COVID; and third, if someone is gathering indoors with a group of people who are at risk of severe disease or are unvaccinated.

At-home rapid tests are available at pharmacies and online retailers. And as of tomorrow, health insurance will cover the cost of these at-home tests.

Before I turn to [senior administration official] to walk through those - the details of our plan for online ordering and distribution of 500 million at-home rapid tests for Americans - to Americans for free, I want to step back and emphasize that this historic plan builds on significant, aggressive action the Biden administration has taken from the start to expand testing capacity.

We streamlined the FDA authorization process to increase the number of tests that are authorized for use in the U.S. We've brought in the NIH to help companies get through that FDA process. And we've focused on increasing manufacturing of these tests.

Starting as early as last February, the administration has used the Defense Production Act, industrial mobilization, as well as $3 billion in advance purchase commitments to ramp up supply of testing, including at-home rapid tests.

All of these actions have paid off. When the President took office, there were zero at-home rapid tests on the market. In January, there will be 375 million at-home rapid tests on the market in the U.S. That is this month alone. And this is in addition to the 1 billion at-home rapid tests that we are purchasing as part of the President's announcement.

All of this is on top of the work the administration has done to increase capacity and resilience for lab-based COVID-19 testing. The U.S. is now conducting more lab-based tests per capita than many peer countries, including Germany, Canada, and Japan.

So, while we are seeing record testing demand with Omicron, and we're seeing it across the globe, we're making great strides to increase our testing supply to meet this demand.

With that, let me turn it over to [senior administration official] for more on today's announcement.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Thanks for being with us today.

So, as [senior administration official] said and as everyone knows, the President is committed to purchasing 1 billion at-home rapid tests to be given to the American people for free.

Today, we want to walk through new details about our plan for online ordering and distribution of 500 million at-home rapid tests to the American people for free.

First, on contracting and supply: The administration is quickly completing a contracting process for this unprecedented purchase of 500 million at-home rapid tests, with over 420 million tests already under contract.

All tests contracted through this program will be rapid at-home tests that have been granted an Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA.

Half a billion tests will be available for order on January 19th and will be mailed directly to American households that order them.

On January 19th, Americans can visit and begin to order their - submit their orders. Let me repeat that: It's

To ensure broad access, the program will limit the number of tests sent to each residential address to four tests.

There will be tests for every household that wants to order them.

Tests will typically ship within 7 to 12 days of ordering.

All orders in the continental United States will be shipped through First Class Package Service, with shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, and the U.S. Territories, and APO, FPO, and DPO addresses sent through Priority Mail.

To order these tests, the only two things that people will need are their name and residential mailing address.

They can also get order status updates by sharing their email address.

Lastly, just as it is has been throughout all of our COVID programs, equity is a top priority for us here too. We're taking a number of steps to ensure this program reaches our hardest-hit and highest-risk communities.

This includes working with national and local organizations with deep experience serving communities of color, people with disabilities, and other high-risk communities to serve as navigators who will raise awareness about this program and help people submit their requests for tests.

We'll be also launching a free call line so that Americans who have difficulty accessing the Internet or need additional support can phone-in orders for their tests.

Before we open for questions, I want to underscore some of what [senior administration official] said, that this new program is just one of the many ways we're ensuring access to free testing.

As you know, there are over 20,000 free testing sites nationwide. And over the past several weeks, to help communities that need additional capacity for testing as they battle Omicron, the administration has rapidly stood up new, federal free testing sites across the country, with many more coming soon.

And just this week, we announced that starting tomorrow, private health insurance companies will be required to cover at-home rapid COVID-19 tests for free.

So, let me stop there, Kevin, and we can open up for questions.

MR. MUNOZ: Thanks, [senior administration official]. So, we have time for a few questions.

First, let's go to Tamara Keith at NPR.

Q Hi. So, I just had a few questions about the timeline and availability. There are some tests that were ordered from warehouse companies. I'm wondering: Are those already on hand? Like, how many tests are actually on hand ready to send on day one? And how many more are going to be coming out over time? How's that going to work?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Tamara. It's a good question.

As I mentioned, we've now contracted for over 420 million tests. And I say we've done that on an extremely rapid timeline for such a big purchase and across different companies.

We have, as you mentioned, some tests already in the possession of the U.S. government; it's on the order of tens of millions. And we're working to get those packed up - the U.S. Postal Service is - now.

And we're confident we can meet the timelines that we outlined today on both ordering and shipping.

Q Is that why it's going to take those 7 to 12 days?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's going to take 7 - that's our best estimation of what the usual shipment time will be. I think as the program ramps up, we expect that timeline will shorten.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. Next question, let's go to Zeke Miller at the AP.

Q Hi, thanks for doing this. Just a follow-up on that last bit there. [Senior administration official], you mentioned that, you know, when the CDC recommends testing - that's five days after exposure or when you started feeling sick. So, is the plan here that Americans need to anticipate those factors? Should every American go online to this website now and buy - and order these tests in order to have them on hand for when they meet those criteria for when they should test according to CDC guidelines?

And then, I was hoping you could also elaborate on why just four tests per residential address. I mean, there are families with more than four people. We've seen people need to test multiple times in order to get - you know, to pick up the virus. How did you select four for that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Zeke, good questions. [Senior administration official], do you want to take the first one, and I can take the second one - multiple (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. So, Zeke, yeah, we are - we are just calling out here the most important uses of OTC tests, but there - beyond OTC tests, we have - there many ways to get tested in the United States, and there are many ways beyond this website to procure tests - through the pharmacy chains, through the community health centers, through other programs, other state programs.

And so, we have more than 20,000 community-based testing sites nationwide, over-the-counter tests being provided to community health centers. And - so -


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: - I think, basically, you know - I think that's answering your question. I think that I understood it, which is just to say there's many modalities for testing. Those recommendations are consistent with CDC's recommendations on testing.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. And I'd say: I think there's been a lot of questions about the uses of at-home tests. So we're trying to clarify here what our experts recommend the uses of at-home tests are, and those are the three.

And then, on your second question, Zeke, you know, this - and I think it sounded (inaudible) because this is one of many programs that we are executing to make sure that Americans have ready access to tests. This particular program was designed to ensure that Americans have at-home rapid tests on hand in the weeks and months ahead, as they have a need to test.

And, you know, we've talked about the many other programs we have that are targeting - and we also have targeted programs, of course, to support schools, to support long-term care facilities, and other vulnerable populations, including mailing and sending tests to community health centers. We have millions of free tests at community health centers where folks can go and pick those up.

So, I'd say this is just one part of a broader set of programs.

MR. MUNOZ: Let's go to Cheryl Stolberg at the New York Times.

Q Hi, thanks for doing this call. I have a couple of questions. First, when will the website be live? I imagine that a lot of Americans, if it's going live at midnight, will, like, wait up until midnight to order their tests. Are you confident that it won't crash?

And then also, on the reimbursement, the administration has said it's providing incentives for insurers to work with pharmacies so that people can be reimbursed at a point of care - at a point of purchase - you know, right when they're buying the test, like you do with drugs. And I'm wondering: What kind of incentives and how many insurers - what percentage of insurers do you think will go that route versus requiring people to send in forms for reimbursements?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Sheryl. I think I'll take the first two, and then, [senior administration official], you take the last one on reimbursements.

On the website, it will be live on the 19th. And I don't have a particular time to share, but we'll stick with the 19th.

On the question about our website, I'd say we're taking our website launch very seriously. We didn't start from scratch. The Postal Service is an important partner here. They already have a website that does sell goods to the public and has for quite some time.

But, of course, every website launch comes with some risk. We're quite cognizant of that. But we have the best tech teams across, you know, our administration, across USPS who have been working hard to make this a success. And we think we're well positioned to do that.

The U.S. Digital Service, which I'm sure you know is an organization that was founded after, has been supporting USPS and helping, partnering to ensure that we're ready for a successful launch at this critical moment.

The USDS team has been following industry best practices, and they conduct load testing. They are working to be able to scale to the demand. They've been monitoring - they have monitoring tools in place. We have incidence response playbooks in place.

So we're ready for this. And we're ready - ready for Americans to start ordering their tests on January 19th.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, and in terms of - yeah, insurance reimbursement. As you said, Sheryl, the insurance companies have been given a strong incentive - very strong financial incentive to create point-of-sale options for - for people to get their tests in stores and online. And they are in the process of doing that.

From our conversations with insurers and pharmacies, it seems like they are moving - I would say, as a group, moving rapidly to do that. There are obviously different permutations. And they're working that out. In the first couple of days, we're encouraging people just to make sure you keep your receipts.

As the systems are getting up online, as with any new program, it'll be, you know, probably a minute before they get going. But we're optimistic that that's the direction that they're going to move.

MR. MUNOZ: Let's go to Kaitlan Collins at CNN.

Q Thank you so much. I've got a few questions.

One, just to follow up: So as of today, you have not secured the entire half a billion tests? I just want to make sure that that's what you were saying earlier.

Secondly, why is it going to take 7 to 12 days for the delivery, given that would put us, at the earliest, on January 26, which is obviously several weeks now after the Omicron surge has taken hold here in the United States?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Kaitlan. For your first question, we have under contract - formally under contract about - over 420 million tests. And we're working to finalize the contracting of the last 80 million. This is an unprecedentedly large purchase. And it's been going at a fast speed and - really fast. And so, we're confident we're going to get the rest under contract.

And we always knew that this would be a series of contracts over a number of weeks. And so this is as we anticipated. We're happy and satisfied with the speed; very excited about the speed in which it has been contracted.

On the 7 to 12 days, I would tell you that's what we are projecting for typical shipment times - or typical shipment times after ordering.

All orders will go, you know, through - in the continental U.S., through First-Class Mail. And the program is intended to really ensure that people have at-home rapid tests available in the weeks ahead.

And, you know, as we said, this is just one more program on top of a number of programs that we have been putting in place to make sure Americans have access to at-home tests. That includes on Saturday when you can pick up a test when you go to a store or purchase one online, and you can get that test, for the first time, reimbursed from insurance.

And, you know, what the Postal Service has done is a lot of work to make sure they're ready for this and they are prepared. They routinely ship, you know, about 26 to 40 million packages a day. They've expanded their staffing, and they - they expanded staffing in the holiday season to accommodate that volume. And they're leveraging that now.

But as I said, I think, in response to Zeke's earlier question, I think 7 to 12 days is what we say typical shipment times would be now from when you order to when you ship. But we hope that those and we anticipate those will shorten as we ramp up this program.

MR. MUNOZ: All right, we have time for a couple more questions. Let's go to Jeff Mason at Reuters.

Q Thanks, Kevin. My question is on cost. Is - do you have a sense of the total cost for the U.S. government to purchase these 1 billion tests? And is all of that covered from the American Rescue Plan?

And just to follow up on the other questioning: Four tests per household, be it a one-person or multi-person household, will probably get used up pretty quickly. Do you expect to be increasing this order from over a billion to (inaudible) soon after? And are you budgeting for that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Jeff. Good question. So, if I caught your first one, I think we - for the initial purchase of the 500 million tests, we anticipate that coming in around $4 billion for the purchase and distribution - the - you know, the ultimate cost will probably differ slightly from that amount. And we'll get the level of (inaudible) on costing probably in a few weeks.

In terms of tests, I mean, we - as I said, I think, earlier, this is just one of many programs. If folks use up the tests, we hope that they can access other ways to get tested, including through pharmacies and online; including our 20,000 free testing sites; including, for those that are patients of community health centers, free testing and pick-up at community health centers.

And so, you know, there's lots of ways to get tests, and this is just one more. And, you know, the President committed to another 500 million just yesterday for a billion. And we're not saying we're stopping there. And we're going to keep - keep moving forward to expand testing so that Americans have it both now and moving into the future.

MR. MUNOZ: Cheyenne Haslett, ABC.

Q Hi, thanks for doing this. My first question is on: Is that second 500 million going to allow for another four tests to be ordered per residential households? And what's the timeline for that? Or is it all - is it four tests for the entire 1 billion?

And then I want to clarify: On January 19th, Americans as a whole will be able to order up to 500 million tests. And even though you don't have them all on hand yet, you'll still be able to get them all out within a max of approximately 12 days?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Cheyenne. Great questions.

On your first question, for the second 500 million: I think, you know, we're committed to buying that. We will - again, as we did with the first 500 million - do at a sort of very fast and in the most expeditious way we can to (inaudible) that.

We will look at demand for this website and make sure we can - we're committed to get those tests out in a way that best meets Americans' needs. That may be through the website. That may be through a website and other means. And we're going to make sure this website works well, and we're going to figure out the exact delivery mechanism for those 500, but we are committed to get them to Americans that need them and that want them in the best way that suits Americans.

But - can you repeat your second question? I'm sorry. I didn't write it down.

Q Yeah. I was wondering - so, I mean, to follow up on that, you're saying that the four tests per household is for all 1 billion, right?

And then my second question is for the January 19th. I'm asking if, even though you don't have all 500 million tests on hand yet - they're just getting to the point of all being contracted - will you still be able to send them all out within 12 days without having them, you know, physically in the government's warehouses or whatever?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, so thank you. So, look, we have a lot of loaded systems and experts working on getting these test (inaudible) and getting them packed up and getting them sent out to Americans.

And we're confident that with our contracting team, which is very fast, with the ones we have on hand and the timelines we're laying out today, that we can we can meet all of our timelines and get these to Americans that want them.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And then your question about four tests - for the 500 million versus the billion, that is a commitment of four tests to every household that wants them in the first 500 million.

MR. MUNOZ: All right, we have time for one more question. Let's go to Weijia at CBS.

Q Thank you, Kevin. And thank you so much for having this call. You said you currently have tens of millions of tests physically on hand and that you're confident you'll be able to hit the time targets that you laid out. But how many tests are the contracted manufacturers able to produce every week, just so we have an understanding of how many more you're going to get on hand?

And then, secondly, have you talked to the manufacturers about tweaking the tests at all, given how hit or miss the current at-home tests seem to be in detecting the Omicron variant?


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Weijia, for those good questions. I'll let [senior administration official] take the second one.

But on the first one, you know, it depends on the manufacturers. But again, we're confident in our ability to get these tests to Americans after they've ordered them in our 7-to-12-day window.

And again, we hope that window - we anticipate that window will shorten as we get further along into this program.

[Senior administration official], do you want to take the second one?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. So, yes, we are confident in the accuracy of all the tests that we - that will be part of this program. HHS, specifically ASPR and NIH in HHS, in terms of setting up the contracting process for these tests - that process has included analytical studies, confirmed that all tests that will be used and distributed can detect the Omicron variant, and that performance is consistent with their FDA emergency use authorization.

So, yes, we do have confidence in all of these tests.

MR. MUNOZ: All right, thank you, everybody. I know there's a ton of questions. We'll be happy to follow up with additional materials.

A reminder: This was on background, attributable to "senior administration officials." The factsheet is embargoed as well until 2:30. And talk soon.

Thank you.

2:06 P.M. EST

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