Where are all the rapid COVID tests? Biden to address shortage in Tuesday speech

Dr. Anthony Fauci says he's struggled to find tests himself.

December 20, 2021, 6:15 PM

In a nationwide speech Tuesday, President Joe Biden was expected to tackle one of the biggest sources of frustration this holiday season -- the massive shortage of at-home COVID tests.

The president planned to give his second major address on the omicron variant, urging Americans to get vaccinated as soon as possible as health officials feared hospitals would be overwhelmed next month.

When asked by reporters whether Biden planned to address the lack of testing kits available on shelves, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said "absolutely, he will."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this fall recommended the use of rapid at-home tests ahead of holiday gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID, in addition to vaccinations and boosters.

Yet many Americans say these tests are nowhere to be found, as major pharmacies are sold out online and shelves are often bare depending upon the location.

"Our objective is to make tests accessible and free for Americans," Psaki said. "There are a lot of ways to do that. And there are different ways that Americans are getting access to tests ... We always feel we need to be doing more and that's what the president will talk about tomorrow."

PHOTO: A Santa Claus on display at the entrance to a CVS Pharmacy announces the store has no more at-home COVID-19 test in Decatur, Ga., Dec. 20, 2021.
A Santa Claus on display at the entrance to a CVS Pharmacy announces the store has no more at-home COVID-19 test in Decatur, Ga., Dec. 20, 2021.
Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Within a short drive of the White House, lines of people waiting for free tests snaked around buildings on a brisk December day. Unable to find at-home testing kits, Washington residents said they were willing to wait in the cold if it meant keeping loved ones safe.

Justin Schweitzer wanted to visit his parents for the holidays but had been exposed to someone with COVID. He had been waiting in line for 40 minutes when he wondered why there wasn’t an easier way to follow basic health recommendations in a pandemic.

"I mean, I don’t know. It’d be nice if, you know the government would send us some rapid tests just to all the homes," he told ABC News. "But this is where we’re at."

Health experts say the latest shortages are the result of a perfect storm -- high demand ahead of the holidays, lack of preparedness, and the new omicron variant that’s proven to be significantly more transmissible.

"We have capacity but when everybody is essentially looking for a test in the exact same moment, the infrastructure just crushes under the weight of that," said John Brownstein, the chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

Dr. Sam Scarpino, managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation and a member of its Pandemic Prevention Institute, said the government could've seen this coming.

"Scientists have been warning about the potential for new variants to come along for a year now or more. And we've known about omicron since the day before Thanksgiving. It's been weeks at this point," he said.

For its part, the White House says it's beefed back up its testing efforts, making 50 million tests available to community health centers and rural health sites, in addition to the 20,000 free testing sites across the country that will offer 500 million tests per month. Also, a new plan calls for insurance companies to cover the costs of rapid tests after mid-January.

Meanwhile, several cities including Boston and the District of Columbia have announced free test kits available at local libraries and recreation centers.

Laboratory tests also are now easier to find than in the early days of the pandemic.

But many of those successes haven't translated into easy, cheap rapid testing for most Americans. So far, insurance is only required to pay for a test if a person has been exposed or has symptoms.

Lab tests can take days to get the results, limiting their utility for a holiday gathering because a person would have to quarantine in the meantime.

Instead, at-home rapid COVID tests have become wildly popular, a kind of holy grail of the holiday season because of the instant results, ease of use and privacy.

Yet in addition to persistent shortages, rapid tests can be expensive. Abbott’s BinaxNow, one popular test believed to be accurate enough to detect the new omicron variant, costs about $25 per box.

Another company, Lucira, announced last month that it’s self-testing molecular kits available on Amazon are highly accurate and able to detect the omicron variant specifically. The downside? It costs $75 per test with a coupon.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's top medical adviser, said he knows testing availability in the country remains "spotty" because he's had to try to find tests himself.

"If you look at what things were like a year ago, it's infinitely better now than it was," he told the National Press Club on Monday. "But it's still not where we want it to be. You have to admit that."

ABC News’ Matthew Vann contributed to this report.

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