Cough, sniffle, sneeze. Is this just another cold – or the dreaded COVID-19? It’s time to spin that swab and find out, so you grab $25 or so and head to your friendly neighborhood pharmacy only to find the shelves devoid of any test kits. You could order on Amazon – but you’ll be waiting two to four weeks instead of the usual two days. Where have all the COVID tests gone? Don’t worry; there are other ways to get tested, just not from the comfort of your own couch. Still, if you simply must swab at home, President Joe Biden has a plan – though whether it will help or hinder depends largely on who you ask.
Biden’s Winter Plan Is Coming
Despite the president’s statement that there is no federal solution to COVID, it sure seems the administration intends to plow full steam ahead with its so-called winter plan. According to the White House, that entails stockpiling 500 million rapid tests to be mailed out upon request through a new website. Will this help stop the spread of COVID-19? Maybe. With half again as many kits as people in the United States, this plan certainly seems plausible at first – assuming the goal is to make free tests available to anyone who feels sick or thinks they may have been exposed. Even if everyone in the nation did eventually feel symptoms or hear that someone they knew got sick, by the time half a billion tests are used, another few hundred million or so might well be ready to go.
But many who have been calling for a move like this want more. Recall that Biden’s employer vaccine mandate requires regular testing should anyone opt-out of being vaccinated? Let that, in conjunction with the fact that medical officials admit even vaccinated people can still catch and spread the virus, clue you in to the ultimate goal. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner, tweeted this in response to the White House’s announcement:
“500 million #covid19 tests sound like a lot. But: 330 million Americans. If half want tests = 165 million. That’s only 3 tests TOTAL per person. Not nearly enough for testing to become the norm before school/work, and for friends getting together. We need a plan for far more.”
Here’s a quick breakdown of how many there would be per American that illustrates her point:
330M (100%) 1 each, 170M left over
247.5M (75%) 2 each, 5M left over
220M (66%) 2 each, 60M left over
165M (50%) 3 each, 5M left over
110M (33%) 4 each, 60M left over
82.5M (25%) 6 each, 5M left over
Even if just one-quarter of the U.S. population starts trying to test regularly before school or work, there are barely enough available for them to get through a single week – and that doesn’t include any weekend gatherings of family or friends. Scripps Research Translational Institute Director Eric Topol commented that it was a start, “but billions are needed to help prevent spread.”
That’s not hyperbole; it’s possible Topol’s wrong – but only if he’s low. If we’re talking about swabbing every day, or even just every two or three days, it could take trillions to get through the age of Omicron. Say half the population is in school or at work five days a week and needs to test daily. To make it through a single month without any weekend gatherings, that’s 3.3 billion kits.
A Worthwhile Investment?
Back in September, before there even was an Omicron variant, Biden announced a plan to spend $2 billion on about 280 million rapid tests to be distributed to community centers, food banks, and schools. Using his math, that comes out to about $7.15 a pop. Now let’s assume he gets that same deal now. Buying 500 million would cost American taxpayers $3.75 billion – for a stockpile that wouldn’t last a week if used the way many hope it will be. At the same price, it would cost $23.595 trillion to get half the U.S. population through a month of daily testing for full-time work or school.
The next questions in this ridiculous thought game of figuring out how to actually follow through with such a plan are:
- How many factories would have to abandon the industries they were designed for to crank out enough to allow Americans to test even once a week, never mind daily?
- Forget about the money required to repurpose those facilities; that it would be expensive should go without saying. Few production operations exist without sufficient market demand for their products to justify the cost of doing business. What would we go without in order to have all these “free” tests?
Assume the government is able to fill the massive demand. Where will the finished product have come from? It seems unlikely it could be done without relying, at least in part, on foreign products. Recall the disgusting revelation surrounding the mass production of face masks in China and India back in 2020? It was bad enough that many Americans put over their mouths and noses what someone on the other side of the world stepped on – do you really want to shove it up your nose and twirl it around?
Biden’s plan has a massive logistics problem, too. Since the government is going to mail them, anyone who requests a test must wait a couple of days while the postal service fulfills that order. For folks who intend to swab regularly, the answer seems simple; just ask for as many as you’ll need this week or month and get ‘em all at once. That should work until they run out. But what about those who experience symptoms or discover an exposure? Can anyone really afford to stay home for two or three days waiting on the mail without proof of infection?
And finally, if the inconvenience of relying on government shipping is the icing on the insanely expensive and quite possibly dirty cake, here’s the cherry on top: The chance of the rapid antigen test missing an infection – that is, of returning a false negative – has been about one in four.
The Silver Lining?
Omicron is more infectious, but it’s also milder. According to the CDC, this addition to the coronavirus family accounts for about 58.6% of U.S. cases. As of Tuesday, December 28, Johns Hopkins University revealed that the seven-day average in the United States hit 254,496 new reported cases daily. So if the CDC’s estimate is accurate, then nearly 150,000 of those are the Omicron variant. That sounds quite scary until you remember that most folks experience this strain as if it were a cold and that only one person has died from it in the U.S. so far.
Still, for those who simply must know whether they have the virus, it isn’t too hard to get checked, at least for now. Though the latest news is that the administration has yet to sign a single contract on acquiring this stockpile, should Biden find a way to follow through, it can only result in fewer tests on the shelves at the pharmacy down the road. At the moment, however, while vendors may suffer a shortage of test-at-home kits to sell you, that doesn’t mean you can’t get tested – for free, no less.
If you have time to wait, and insurance to cover it, simply schedule an appointment with your primary care provider – or, for that matter, hit the local walk-in clinic. If those options don’t excite, many locations in cities around the nation, from health departments to pharmacies like Walmart and Walgreens, offer free testing – and for some of those, you don’t even have to get out of the car. Walgreens, for example, seems to have a dozen locations or more in most major cities with available appointments to get your swab right at the drive-thru window. For those in the Big Apple, there are 17 locations to pick from in about a 30-mile circle. Live a bit farther south? In Tampa, Florida, there are ten – with another 30 within easy driving distance spread out across St. Petersburg, Bradenton, and Sarasota. Even in Arkansas, a state that most would agree isn’t exactly famous for its sprawling metropolitan areas, a half-hour or so drive around Little Rock brings you to ten – and there are six options in the Hot Springs area. And that’s just Walgreens.
So where have all the COVID-19 tests gone? Well, we’ve used a great deal of them – but there are still a whole lot out there if you know where to look. At least there will be until the government snatches them all up.
~ Read more from James Fite.
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