Coronavirus Chronicles

Need More Rapid Covid Tests? Washington's Got You.

A portal will launch soon to double those White House swab shipments.

By Benjamin Cassidy January 20, 2022

We've come a long way, folks. It was only last month that White House press secretary Jen Psaki pooh-poohed the prospect of shipping one rapid Covid test to every person in the country. Now, Washington is set to join the federal government in offering free self-swabs to its constituents, potentially doubling allocations to families across the state and alleviating some of the burden on local PCR testing sites.

During a press briefing yesterday, health officials announced that every Washington household can order one free rapid antigen test kit that contains four or five swabs. The state's deputy secretary for Covid-19 response, Lacy Fehrenbach, said to look for a web portal "within a few days." (UPDATE: The site is live.) The state's Covid hotline, 1-800-525-0127, will offer additional language options.

Like with the national program, it will take somewhere between one and two weeks for the kits to ship. Expect bumps. "While supply chains are improving, they are still strained," Fehrenbach said. Washington has ordered 3.5 million tests, but they're arriving over several weeks. Low inventory may lead to check-back-later ordering situations.

The "household" designation may also pose some problems, if the White House rollout is any indication. Though the national site has somehow averted crashes this week, its shipping function has a pretty significant defect. Some people living in apartment buildings and other multi-family complexes have been unable to order their four allotted tests, which is not a great look for an administration purportedly focused on equity in its Covid response.

It's fair to question, like Psaki initially did, how important all these rapid antigen tests really are. Research shows that they may give us a false sense of security rather than peace of mind. The federal government's page encourages people to swab themselves no fewer than five days after a close Covid contact; rapids haven't been very good at picking up Omicron right away. And a negative test should be confirmed at least 24 hours later with another negative.

But a person who tests positive is "very likely" to have Covid, which means these rollouts can perhaps reduce some of the burden on PCR testing locations that have been swamped of late. Fehrenbach said there's no need to confirm a rapid with a visit to a clinic. Just start isolating.

She also noted that, somewhat under-the-radar, health insurers now cover up to eight rapid tests a month per person. Still, finding those tests around this health-conscious city has been a struggle. Free government shipments can't get here fast enough.

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