A man holds a swab for a home COVID-19 testShare on Pinterest
The White House plans to send 500 million free at-home COVID-19 tests to people in the United States. Violeta Stoimenova/Getty Images
  • The White House has launched a website to send 500 million at-home COVID-19 test kits to homes for free.
  • The federal government has also started a program to send 400 million free N95 face masks to people in the United States.
  • White House officials and experts say the programs should help reduce the number of COVID-19 cases.
  • One expert, however, questioned why the programs weren’t instituted sooner and what the government plans to do once the supply of tests and masks have been sent out.

People in the United States can now order free at-home COVID-19 test kits from a government website as well as obtain free N95 masks to protect against coronavirus infection.

Ordering the free at-home rapid tests is as simple as filling out a brief form at COVIDTests.gov.

The U.S. Postal Service is responsible for delivering the kits. There’s no charge for delivery.

Orders are limited to four tests per residence and require only a name and residential address to process.

The program rolled out on Jan. 18. Delivery is promised within 7 to 12 days of an order being placed.

A call line will also be set up for people who don’t have internet access to order tests, according to government officials.

In a White House press briefing, Biden administration officials said the federal government will spend about $4 billion to acquire and distribute 500 million at-home tests to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has accelerated nationwide with the arrival of the highly contagious Omicron variant in December.

“This particular program was designed to ensure that Americans have at-home rapid tests on hand in the weeks and months ahead, as they have a need to test,” according to a senior Biden administration official.

At-home rapid test kits will also be available at pharmacies and online retailers. Insurers are also now being required to cover the cost of at-home tests, the official said.

“Americans should take a test when they have symptoms that appear to be COVID-19 — so fever, cough, sore throat, respiratory symptoms, muscle aches; [and] when they’re exposed — so five days after they’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID-19,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, MPH, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told reporters at a Jan. 12 press briefing.

“And, certainly [test] if you’re going to gather with family, if you’re going to a gathering where people are immunocompromised or where there are elderly or where you have people who might be unvaccinated or poorly protected from a vaccine,” she said.

Production and distribution of the tests are being done under emergency rules of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

A senior administration official said all of the tests are capable of detecting the Omicron variant and that “we are confident in the accuracy of all the tests that… will be part of this program.”

Currently, there are nine brands of at-home COVID-19 tests on the market in the United States.

Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, the regional clinical medical director for St. Mary’s Health Network and Carbon Health in Nevada, told Healthline the federal government’s test kit distribution program is “wonderful resources for people to learn their COVID status from the comfort of their home,” particularly for communities underserved by pharmacies and other health resources.

The cost of at-home testing kits has been a major barrier to access for low income households, noted Curry-Winchell, adding that options for ordering free tests need to be quickly expanded beyond the internet.

“We need that phone number to be on because not everyone has Wi-Fi,” she said.

Separately, the Biden administration also announced its intention to distribute 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks free of charge to people in the United States.

The program, which began this week, allocates three free disposable N95 masks per person.

The White House called the mask distribution the “largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.”

The plan was unveiled shortly after the CDC reiterated that N95 masks offer greater protection against coronavirus infection — including the Omicron variant — than cloth masks.

N95 masks — technically known as N95 respirators — can filter out 95 percent of airborne particles when fitted and worn properly.

White House officials told reporters that 400 million N95 masks will be distributed to the public via pharmacies and community health centers.

The masks will come from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Strategic National Stockpile, which currently has more than 750 million N95 masks set aside for healthcare workers and first responders.

Ryan Ferris, co-founder, president, and CEO of Vermont-based Garnet Transport Medicine, which provides administrative and logistical support for the state’s COVID-19 testing programs, is generally supportive of the test and mask distribution plans but questions why both initiatives were not undertaken earlier in the pandemic.

Ferris also expressed concern that government purchasing of such massive quantities of tests and masks for individual distribution will dry up supplies for other users.

“I think it’s good that they’re doing this, but I’d like to see what their plan is for March through August,” Ferris said.

He noted that in a nation of 380 million people, even distributing 500 million test kits and 400 million masks constitutes a short-term supply.

“One bolus [single dose] of testing will not do anything long term,” he said.