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The Biden administration announced it will again offer free at-home COVID-19 tests to U.S. households starting September 26th, as the virus gains momentum nationwide this fall and winter.
Americans can once again order four free at-home rapid antigen tests per household through the COVIDtests.gov website beginning Monday. The tests will be completely free and shipped directly to homes across the country.
This federal testing program originally launched in January 2022 at the height of the Omicron variant surge but was paused this past June to conserve test supplies. Now, with COVID-19 hospitalizations rising for two straight months, the administration is relaunching the initiative to increase access to free tests.
“We’re doing this because COVID-19 cases are on the rise across parts of America, especially as we head into the winter months when viruses tend to thrive,” said White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha in a statement. “Getting tested if you have symptoms or were exposed is still one of the best tools we have to keep people safe and reduce the spread of the virus.”
Free Tests Can Detect Current COVID Variants
The latest batch of tests being shipped through the program can detect the current BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants and other COVID strains circulating in the U.S., according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The FDA has also extended the expiration dates on over 100 million tests in the nation’s Strategic National Stockpile past their original end dates. When people receive their new round of free tests in the mail, they will find instructions on how to check if their kit’s expiration date has been extended for continued reliability.
“Extending the expiration date on these authorized tests will allow us to continue making tests available to Americans who need them,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf.
So far, over 600 million at-home COVID tests have been delivered to nearly 70% of American households since the start of the federal program. Over 300 million of those went to high-risk and underserved communities bearing the greatest burden during the pandemic.
Why Testing Matters This Fall and Winter
Public health experts say widespread testing remains essential even as COVID vaccines and treatments are now widely available. This is especially true heading into the fall and winter months when respiratory viruses like COVID historically spread faster with more people gathering indoors.
“Testing is always valuable because it helps prevent transmission,” says Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Tests can identify those who are infected so they can isolate and notify their close contacts. This breaks the chain of transmission.”
Studies have also found that frequent rapid testing in schools and workplaces significantly reduces outbreaks and keeps more people protected.
“Easy access to self-tests is a key part of keeping activities and society open,” says epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “People can test themselves before gatherings or going to work when they feel ill, and stay home if positive to avoid infecting others.”
The renewed federal testing initiative comes at an opportune time, as recent CDC data shows COVID-19 community levels increasing in over 50% of U.S. counties. Hospital admissions are up nearly 20% in the last two weeks, signaling a steady resurgence.
Rising Costs and Declining Access to COVID Testing
The return of free rapid tests also helps counteract recent declines in COVID testing access and affordability for some Americans.
Since the federal public health emergency order ended in May, laboratories are no longer required to post their COVID test prices or accept insurance reimbursement for them. As a result, PCR lab tests have become more expensive and prohibitively costly for uninsured patients.
Many major health insurers also stopped covering over-the-counter at home tests for free under plan benefits when the emergency order expired. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 56% of insured adults who tried getting reimbursed for self-tests since May couldn’t get their insurer to pay.
But the Biden administration stresses that community health clinics, rural health centers and other local providers continue offering COVID tests at no cost.
“Our administration is making sure Americans have access to free COVID-19 testing through thousands of locations nationwide,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “We stand ready to make millions more free tests available if needed to keep up with demand.”
$600 Million Investment to Boost At-Home Test Manufacturing
Along with replenishing the nation’s stockpile of rapid tests, the federal government is also investing $600 million to increase future domestic production capacity and manufacturing of the kits.
The new funding from the HHS will expand manufacturing lines and purchase equipment for eight of the largest over-the-counter test producers nationwide. Several academic institutions developing their own rapid tests will also receive grants to accelerate production.
“These critical investments will strengthen our nation’s production levels of domestic at-home COVID-19 rapid tests and help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Secretary Becerra said.
This boost in manufacturing infrastructure will enable companies to churn out up to 200 million more at-home tests in the coming months that can be deployed as needed.
Having an ample supply of tests is central to the government’s strategy for staying prepared and mitigating any potential new waves or variants ahead. Americans are encouraged to take full advantage of the free testing program this fall and winter to protect themselves and vulnerable loved ones.
Stay up to date with the latest COVID-19 news and guidance at CDC.gov. Find free testing locations near you through your state or local health department website. And continue getting vaccinated and boosted for optimal protection.
For full details and the latest updates on accessing free at-home COVID tests, visit the official website COVIDtests.gov starting Monday. Working together through shared responsibility and smart public health measures, we can maintain our progress against the pandemic.