Extend, fund free COVID tests

Star Tribune editorial board (TNS)
In this photo illustration, free iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid tests from the federal government sit on a U.S. Postal Service envelope after being delivered on Feb. 4, 2022, in San Anselmo, California. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

The COVID-19 virus's course and evolution remain unpredictable. But this far into the pandemic, there are some safe assumptions.

One of them is a fall-winter spike in cases. Colder weather's return, schools resuming and holiday gatherings contribute to the crowded indoor conditions that fuel viral spread. A look back at case counts since the pandemic's 2020 start confirms this, with hospitalizations and deaths rising during this time frame.

The pandemic's third autumn is looming. That reality makes this an alarming time for Congress to let one of the best tools to fight COVID-19's spread — rapid, at-home tests — become less accessible and affordable. The nation's policymakers need to reverse this mistake as soon as possible.

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By now, the names of over-the-counter COVID-19 test kits should be familiar. They include BinaxNOW, iHealth, QuickVue, Flowflex and InteliSwab, just to name a few. The products are available on Amazon, at pharmacies and retailers such as Target and Walmart.

Results typically are available in about 15 minutes. The convenience and speed make it easy to determine if you or a family member should isolate instead of going to school, to the office or to a family gathering. If you're positive, staying home can break the chain of this airborne virus's spread.

But the tests' price tag can be daunting. A box of two Binax tests costs $23.99 at Walgreens, for example. During a surge, these tests can also be hard to find. Retailers' shelves emptied quickly in Minnesota last January when the omicron variant hit. Even online supplies were elusive for a time.

A sensible federal program that mailed free rapid tests to individual households helped ensure that the public had tests on hand and could do its part to halt COVID-19's spread. All consumers have to do is go to covid.gov/tests to sign up. Individual households have been eligible for three rounds of shipments.

But that program is ending Friday. While the program obviously can't continue indefinitely, the timing is abysmal given what is known about COVID-19 and colder weather's return. It's also disturbing because of what Minnesota infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm has called COVID-19's "high plateau" — the stable but high level of cases this summer.

The Biden administration is blaming Congress for not funding the program's continuation. Dollars for tests and other COVID-19 countermeasures are drying up from legislation passed earlier in the pandemic, but new funding has fallen victim to politics and process even as Biden's own party has passed landmark legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act.

Congressional leaders need to address this oversight as soon as possible — for example, by attaching emergency supplemental funding to other must-pass legislation in the weeks ahead. Pending legislation calls for an additional $21 billion to fund the federal COVID-19 response, including testing. That's a modest price to pay to contain the virus.

This is increasingly a "do-it-yourself" pandemic, with individuals left to gauge COVID-19 risk and decide when to take protective measures. At-home tests are a vital tool to help consumers make smart decisions to limit spread. The tests are also critical in knowing when to seek COVID-19 treatments such as Paxlovid, which must be taken within five days of symptom onset.

This pandemic isn't over, and at-home tests should continue to be widely available and easily accessible.

— From the Star Tribune editorial board (TNS).