As Joe Biden Ramps Up COVID Testing, Other Countries Are Easing Restrictions

A White House push to get more Americans to test for COVID-19 at home comes as other countries reconsider their pandemic measures and ease restrictions for those who return positive tests.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said that from Saturday, most people under health insurance plans can get free over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic tests.

Announced in December by President Joe Biden, the move followed criticism over long lines for scarce testing kits outside pharmacies and other outlets.

Biden also said his administration had ordered 500 million testing kits, which he admitted he had wished he had ordered "two months ago," although there are no further details on when they will be distributed.

On January 4, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether the testing kit rollout would be too late to stem the Omicron wave, which The Washington Post reported could peak in the middle of January and start to decline by the end of the month.

One expert said that that Americans are still expected to benefit from the increased number of testing kits even if they arrive after the peak, especially with the prediction the disease will be around for years.

"Having ubiquitous testing available in the United States is going to be important as people increasingly want to know their status before social interactions," said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar, at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

He told Newsweek that it was also important "as we have increased availability of an antiviral which has a narrow window of benefit for which prompt testing will be critical."

"There will come a time, as we move towards endemicity, that testing will be less of an emphasis," he said.

"But I think the momentum for home testing is something that should not be lost but expanded to other infections like influenza, strep throat, mono, and RSV [Respiratory Syncytial Virus]."

However, Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University said there were question marks over Biden's big announcements on increased testing.

"Half a billion tests sounds like a lot, but that's not even enough for every American to receive two tests," she told Newsweek.

"Insurance reimbursement also unnecessarily complicates things, and many Americans will find it a major barrier to find tests, pay out of pocket, then submit for reimbursement.

"The federal government needs to do a lot more to purchase tests and distribute them directly to Americans."

The emphasis on testing in the U.S. comes as the British government rejected a Sunday Times report that it was going to ax free home tests amid concerns over the costs and would limit them to high-risk settings like care homes, hospitals and schools.

However, British Housing Secretary Michael Gove later said it was "impossible to predict" how long the free tests would be available.

Meanwhile, as data shows that Omicron is less likely to fill hospital beds, countries in Europe are grappling with how to scale back isolation measures and focus on helping their economies while ensuring the disease does not take key workers out of action.

This week, the Czech Republic said it would allow critical workers such as doctors and teachers to go to work after a positive COVID-19 test.

The U.K., France, Switzerland, Spain and Belgium have cut quarantine periods in the last three weeks and eased some of the conditions for infected staff to return to work, pointing towards a new approach in tackling the pandemic in 2022.

On Tuesday, the U.K. Health Security Agency said that most people who come back positive from an antigen test do not need to take a more comprehensive PCR test to confirm they have COVID-19.

Last week, Portugal, which has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world, said those who had received booster shots can follow relaxed isolation rules when exposed to the virus.

At the end of last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut the isolation time for asymptomatic people who test positive for COVID-19 from 10 days to five.

Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of Bilbao's Institute for Health and Strategy, told Reuters that authorities should focus more on managing infection than preventing it.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told the radio station Cadena SER that the onus should be on "evaluating the evolution of this disease with different parameters than we have until now,"

COVID test being bagged up
A technician with a nose swab test at a testing site at Churchill Downs on January 10, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky. The Biden administration has announced free tests will be provided for millions of Americans. Jon Cherry/Getty