COVID hospitalizations reach record high as the White House rushes to ramp up testing

During Tuesday's congressional hearing about the pandemic, there were tough criticisms of the Biden administration and the lack of available testing. Biden has announced plans to ramp up the response, from requiring insurers to pay for rapid at-home testing to making 500 million tests available. Thomas Inglesby, senior advisor to the White House COVID team, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    During today's Senate hearing about the pandemic, lawmakers leveled tough criticisms at the Biden administration, including around the lack of available testing.

    The president has announced plans to ramp up the response. That includes requiring insurers to pay for eight rapid at-home tests per person per month starting this weekend and making 500 million tests available to ship to those who request them.

    We look at key questions about all this with Dr. Tom Inglesby. He is a senior adviser to the White House COVID Response Team.

    Dr. Inglesby, thank you so much for joining us.

    The calls for these tests have been out there for a long time. How much difference are these steps the White House has announced going to make?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby, Senior Adviser, White House COVID-19 Response Team:

    Judy, thanks so much for having me tonight. Good to be here.

    The steps that have been announced this week I think are going to make a major difference in the availability of over-the-counter tests for Americans. The insurance plan that you just referenced will come into effect this weekend. And every family that's covered by private insurance will be able to access tests on a regular basis for all family members.

    And then, as you noted, the second part of this new announcement this week is the presidential plan to provide 500 million rapid tests to Americans across the country through a simple Web site. That will be put in place later in this month. People will be begin to be able to be ordering later this month, and tests will start to arrive during January.

    So, those different components of the plan will add to the already growing market of over-the-counter tests in the United States. If you look back at the summertime, we had 25 million tests available to Americans back in August, over-the-counter tests, and, in December, we had 300 million tests.

    And that number is going to will grow in January, February, March and beyond.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In so many words, though, how are you ramping up the supply of tests, when we know, for the longest time, there just have not been anywhere near the number of tests available?

    How are you suddenly going to make this happen?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Well, the number of the tests has been growing over the course of the fall. We have had a number of new manufacturers get their authorization from the FDA in October, November, December.

    So, there are new manufacturers. Even right before the holidays, two major companies just got their authorization, and they're not even providing tests yet to America, and they will be soon. There are many more companies that have been seeking authorization of the FDA.

    These announcements have increased the interest in companies making these tests. So we have momentum. We would like to go faster. We are going to go faster, and we're going to make more tests available.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how is it going to work for people who are going to want to access these tests through the U.S. Postal Service? Do they go — they're going to go to a Web site?

    I mean, how is that going to work for people?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Exactly.

    People will be able to go to a Web site, which will be launched relatively soon. So they will be able to see it before the time when they can start ordering tests. It'll be a simple, very straightforward Web site, where people will go in and put in their address, and say they'd like tests, and those tests will come to them. That will be very straightforward.

    So that will be happening relatively soon and…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Relatively soon. Excuse me.

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Relatively soon, meaning by the next few weeks?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Yes, the Web site should be available, should be online by this weekend.

    And then, sometime in the days to follow, people will begin to be able to order their tests.

  • Judy¬†Woodruff:

    And then how long to receive them?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Tests will begin to arrive during January, and then into February.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking because I did see reporting today that it may take two months for these 500 million tests the administration is talking about to reach people.

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    The details of the timing of their arrival are still being worked out with companies. The contracts are just closing today and the next couple of days. So I think some of the details will be announced by this Friday.

    But we're going to be getting tests out as quickly as we can, as the manufacturers deliver them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Inglesby, given that the demand is going to — still going to be exceeding the supply, how are you going to decide who gets the tests that are available? How are you going to prioritize this?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    So, in this plan to distribute 500 million tests, there are enough tests for every household in America.

    And so there is no need to make a choice between one household or another. Any household that will want these tests will be able to get these tests. And so, as orders come in to the Web site, we will distribute those tests accordingly. And we will not have a problem reaching all Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, in other words, you're not — there's no plan for prioritization, that certain people will have access before others?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Right.

    This Web site will provide access to all Americans at the same time. It'll be able to handle a very large load of requests. It's being built to be able to handle very high volume in the earliest days, which is when we expect there will be a lot of interest and a lot of demand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, for example, individuals of lower income who may not be able to go to the drugstore, afford to get them, to pay for them, they will be thrown in the mix with everybody else?

    And everybody will need to have Internet access.

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    So, we are very, very conscious of the equity issues involved in having a Web site like this. There will be a phone line available for people to call in their orders for people who don't have Internet access or have some kind of disability which limits their ability to be on the Internet.

    We also have — I mean, it is part of a larger program of testing in the United States. We have a variety of different testing channels that are providing tests for Americans, over-the-counter tests. So, for example, the president announced a commitment last month to provide 50 million over-the-counter tests for free to community health clinics around the country and to rural health clinics.

    And that is already happening. About nine million tests have already been ordered by clinics around the country. We will continue to do that. We will continue to provide free testing in pharmacies, in 10,000 pharmacies around the country, which are disproportionately located in underserved communities.

    So that all — those programs will continue as is. But we're adding an additional program here. We also will be making sure to communicate very broadly and carefully with communities that are underserved before this program launches.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And with regard to the announcement about insurers are going to be providing — will be reimbursing to everyone who has insurance coverage, reimbursing what they pay for tests, that's not — that obviously doesn't cover all Americans, and it covers people who have insurance.

    So you're looking at two different buckets of people? Is that how you see it?

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Well, in this case, for the insurance program, we have taken a step to cover everyone who is — who has private insurance, which is 150 million Americans.

    Medicaid providers also have a provision for including over-the-counter tests and providing them for free. There are some states where there may need — we're working through prescription — whether someone might need a prescription. But we're hoping that they will be able to access the tests in the same way as anyone with private insurance.

    And then we also have and have had in place since the beginning of the administration a program for the uninsured. So we have a $5 billion program through HRSA to provide coverage of testing for the uninsured. So, we're going about this in a variety of ways, consistent with the programs that we have.

    But, yes, the insurance program, for now, that is a private insurance program, but we have other channels for people who are covered in other ways.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Tom Inglesby, thank you. I know a lot of people have questions, many questions about how this is going to work.

    Thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

  • Dr. Tom Inglesby:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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