Starting Jan. 18, Americans are able to order free at-home COVID-19 test kits from the government, in the Biden Administration's ongoing effort to curb the latest, record-breaking coronavirus surge.
Near the end of 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration announced it would be buying 500 million at-home tests to give to every US household for free — a purchase that is expected to cost around $4 billion, according to senior administration official who spoke to reporters during a press call. More than 420 million tests are already in contract, as administration officials work to "finalize the contracting of the last 80 million."
"The President committed to another 500 million just yesterday for a billion," the official said. "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."
“We’re seeing unprecedented demand,” John Koval, the director of public affairs for rapid diagnostics at Abbott, the makers of BinaxNow, told NBC News. “And we’re sending them out as fast as we can make them. Despite public health guidance over the summer that caused the market for rapid testing to plummet, we never stopped making tests.”
Here's everything you need to know about how to order free COVID-19 rapid test kits for your home:
How can you get free COVID tests?
The Biden Administration says it will also launch a free "call line to help those unable to access the website to place orders" and will "work with national and local community-based organizations to support the nation's hardest-hit and highest-risk communities in requesting tests," according to a White House written statement.
"We’re taking a number of steps to ensure this program reaches our hardest-hit and highest-risk communities," one senior administration official said. "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."
Studies have shown low-income and communities of color have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and are more likely to develop a serious illness if infected. Yet, the same communities are less likely to have access to adequate, affordable, and quick COVID-19 tests. One 2020 study found that communities of color "in many major cities face higher demand than sites in whiter or wealthier areas in those same cities," and that Black and Latinx people were "more likely to experience longer wait times and understaffed testing centers."
When can you order?
Americans can start ordering free at-home COVID tests on Jan. 18. To order, people only need to provide their name and a residential mailing address — a credit card number will not be required and those ordering tests will not be charged for shipping. If desired, people can share their email address and receive status updates on their order.
One White House official did stress that the administration is cognizant that any website launch can and often does experience a few technical difficulties.
"But we have the best tech teams across, you know, our administration, across USPS who have been working hard to make this a success," the official said. "And we think we’re well positioned to do that."
How many tests can you order?
Every household can order up to four tests, according to a White House press release, to "ensure broad access."
In addition to the four free tests, administration officials say additional federal free testing sites will be stood up across the country. Currently, there are over 20,000 free testing sites up and running nationwide.
Private health insurance companies are also mandated to cover the cost of any additional at-home rapid COVID-19 test purchases.
Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington, told TODAY that while forcing private insurance companies to cover the cost of at-home tests is lowering barriers that exist "slightly for some people," it does not remove them entirely.
“While this policy is filling a real need and will help a lot of families, it does not help the millions of people who are covered under Medicaid, Medicare or uninsured," Corlette said. "We still don’t have anything close to the national, coordinated and comprehensive testing policy that we need.”
When should you expect to receive the tests?
Administration officials predict it will take anywhere from seven to 12 days for the tests to ship. All tests ordered in the continental United States will be shipped through First Class Package Service. Any shipments sent to Alaska, Hawaii, and the U.S. Territories — or that have APO, FPO, and DPO addresses — will be sent through Priority Mail.
As the program ramps up, officials believe that timeline will shorten, and the administration is working with the USPS to swiftly deliver the tests to households.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said USPS officials have "expressed confidence and an interest in playing the role in delivering tests to people across the country," during a press briefing on Thursday. "We take them at their word."
Still, the USPS has experienced significant delays due to staffing shortages, extreme weather, and high demand. Recently, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) reached an agreement with the Postal Service in hopes of ensuring everyone who orders a test will receive one in a timely manner, including allowing USPS the flexibility to keep holiday temporary workers on in order to "increase the workforce capacity to make this project a success."
“APWU-represented clerk craft bargaining unit employees boldly accept the ‘new work’ opportunity to fulfill the distribution of the COVID test kits authorized by the Biden Administration’s call to action,” Clerk Craft Director Lamont Brooks said in a written statement posted to APWU's website. “This is just another example of clerks, as part of the Postal Service institution, rising to the challenge of connecting the public during these difficult times while still carrying out our mission of processing the mail.”