By ZEKE MILLER and MATT O’BRIEN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration quietly launched its website Tuesday for Americans to request free at-home COVID-19 tests, a day before the site officially went live.
The website, COVIDTests.gov, now includes a link for “every home in the United States” to access an order form managed by the U.S. Postal Service. People can order four home tests per residential address, to be delivered by the Postal Service. It marks President Joe Biden’s latest step in addressing criticism of low inventory and long lines for testing during a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the website was in “beta testing” and operating at “limited capacity” before its official launch. The website will officially launch mid-morning on Wednesday, Psaki said.
There were isolated reports Tuesday afternoon of issues with the website’s address verification tool that mistakenly enforces the four-per-household cap on apartment buildings and other multi-unit dwellings. A Postal Service spokesperson said in a statement that the error “occurs in a small percentage of orders.” He said any user needing assistance can file a service request at emailus.usps.com/s/the-postal-store-inquiry or contact a help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.
As of Tuesday, more than 750,000 people were accessing the website at the same time, according to public government tracking data, but it was not immediately clear how many orders had been placed.
PSAki added that the administration was anticipating a “bug or two,” but computer experts across the government were working to prepare the site.
Biden announced last month that the United States would purchase 500 million home tests to launch the program and on Thursday the president announced he was doubling the order to 1 billion tests.
But Americans shouldn’t expect a quick turnaround on orders, and they’ll need to plan ahead and request the tests well before they meet federal guidelines on when to use a test.
The White House said “tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering” via USPS, which reports shipping times of 1-3 days for its first-class parcel service in the continental United States. .
Officials stressed that the federal website is just one way for people to get hold of COVID-19 tests, and shortages of home test kits have shown signs of easing as the supply increased in the market.
As of Saturday, private insurance companies are required to cover the cost of rapid home tests, allowing Americans to be reimbursed for the tests they purchase from pharmacies and online retailers. This covers up to eight tests per month.
The technical bugs that embarrassed President Barack Obama’s administration with the 2013 rollout of the HealthCare.gov website shouldn’t be a problem for the COVID-19 test kit website, in part because it’s so simpler, said Alex Howard, director of Digital Democracy. Project, an open government watchdog group. Howard said the new website is also easier than the Vaccines.gov website — for finding nearby vaccination clinics and pharmacies — which was already successfully launched by the Biden administration last year.
Howard said the task of asking for someone’s address is simple, especially compared to the Obama-era health insurance website that involved buying different health plans and authenticating a secure transaction. . The challenge of hosting a high-demand website application is also a “solved problem” in the private sector, he said.
“I expect the US Digital Service and all of the vendors they work with to be able to do that,” he said. “That’s the least difficult part of it all.”
Two technology companies that frequently work with the federal government — Microsoft and Accenture — referred website questions to the Postal Service on Tuesday. Amazon, a major cloud provider for US agencies, did not respond to requests for comment.
Howard said the trickiest part of the project isn’t the website but the physical distribution of the kits.
“I can’t remember the last time the feds sent something like this to everyone that wasn’t a tax document,” he said.
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