In a testy exchange with NPR reporter Mara Liasson over whether the Biden administration should be delivering rapid coronavirus tests to every household amid a new COVID-19 surge, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki delivered an answer that many — particularly those in the medical community — viewed as “dismissive,” “flippant,” and “cringeworthy.”
Psaki’s response came as parts of the United States face a new surge in COVID cases as the weather cools and people gather indoors, and after a worrisome new variant was detected in several states.
Liasson first drew attention to the ramp-up in testing announced by President Biden last week as part of his campaign to get more Americans vaccinated. Part of that plan includes private health insurers being required to reimburse their patients when they purchase rapid, over-the-counter tests and then submit the receipts as proof. Such tests typically come in packs of two and often cost anywhere between $14 and $40.
But other countries in both Europe and Asia — including Germany, the United Kingdom, and South Korea — Liasson noted, “basically have massive testing, free of charge or for a nominal fee.”
“Why can’t that be done in the United States?” Liasson asked. It was a question raised by some health policy experts at the time the administration first shared its strategy for the winter, many of whom have been pressing for the rapid tests to become widely available and free to the public for months. She labeled the testing plan — which Psaki said has been “quadrupled” in size and would enable “150 million Americans” to get free tests — as “kind of complicated.”
Jen Psaki somewhat mockingly asks reporter at the White House Daily Press Briefing if the US should be sending out rapid #COVID19 tests to every household.— Matt Karolian (@mkarolian) December 6, 2021
In the UK you can order 1 pack (containing 7 tests) everyday. https://t.co/ErnSsiLxxl pic.twitter.com/L7ruKWdy5n
That’s when Psaki shot back a response: “Should we just send one to every American?” Liasson then suggested that “maybe” the administration should, in fact, do just that.
“Then what happens if you — if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?” Psaki returned.
A number of doctors and epidemiologists were left dumbfounded by the exchange, arguing on Twitter that the correct course of action to address the pandemic could not be more clear: make the tests free and accessible to all.
Craig Spencer, the director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, called the press secretary’s take on rapid tests both “dismissive” and “out of touch.” But the part he said irked him the most was the question over “how much does it cost.”
“We spent BILLIONS AND BILLIONS on vaccines that we would never consider charging for,” Spencer tweeted. “Tests should be no different.”
In a lengthy thread, Bill Hanage, an associate professor at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, broke down why he interpreted the response delivered by Psaki as “astonishing to see,” arguing that rapid tests “are a part of the pandemic toolkit and should be readily available to everyone.”
Hanage tweeted that these tests are best utilized to “prevent unwitting exposures and also to prevent needless quarantine/isolation” and not to “confirm when you think you are infected.” He specifically acknowledged the benefit of having them available with the holiday season in full swing — a time when many Americans are expected to gather in congregate settings.
“So the value of Americans having easy access to *free* rapid tests would be that we would reduce transmission at all the holiday parties that are not canceled because of Omicron,” he wrote. “However if the tests are not available there is literally no opportunity for people to get a result and then behave responsibly.”
Psaki doubled down on her comments on Tuesday, both during a White House briefing and in a series of tweets.
“Our assessment is that the best way to make these tests readily available and accessible to people is to ... make them available at places where people go,” she said. “Our approach is not to send everyone in the country a test just to have millions of tests go unused where we know others can make use of them.”
Our focus is on ensuring everyone in America has access to free testing, whether at a doctor's office, pharmacy, community testing site or at home. We are continuing to scale up our testing program to meet demand and ensure people who want tests are getting tests.— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) December 7, 2021
See additional reactions below:
Her mocking of the reporter is a laugh in the face of every American who lost a loved one to COVID (myself included) as well as everyone who is permanently disabled due to #COVID19. Of course, we should be sending tests out! @jrpsaki @PressSec— Kristin Urquiza #MarkedByCOVID (@kdurquiza) December 6, 2021
I don’t understand @PressSec’s answer. By dismissing the idea of sending every American a rapid test due to cost, she seems to imply that the insurance reimbursement plan won’t come close to doing that. Not a good sign. As many feared. https://t.co/cLEbDursL4— Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH (@JenniferNuzzo) December 7, 2021
Wherein I let show my intense frustration that we are still talking about this, this far into the pandemic. Rapid tests are important--make them free. But also, we STILL need a national testing plan that optimizes ALL OF OUR TESTING OPTIONS. https://t.co/9mkYYfYXa5— Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH (@JenniferNuzzo) December 6, 2021
.@PressSec: This answer was terrible, flippant, wrong. Rapid tests are hard to get, expensive & could be a key intervention in fighting #COVID19. Other countries have figured out better ways to get these tools into the hands of their citizens. Do better. @WHCOS @JeffreyZients https://t.co/Bmy7wxIs9e— Gregg Gonsalves (@gregggonsalves) December 6, 2021
Psaki says their COVID test insurance reimbursement effort "means 150 million Americans will be able to get free tests."— Andrew Perez (@andrewperezdc) December 6, 2021
Paying high retail prices out of pocket and waiting for reimbursement is not really how "free" works.
Also the policy won't even be finalized til January 15 https://t.co/TfQ9r97DpD
.@PressSec "should we just send one [test] to every American?"— Matthew Cortland, JD (@mattbc) December 6, 2021
YES!! We should be sending both rapid tests & N95 masks to every household in the U.S. at regular intervals! Then we keep sending them until the #COVID19 pandemic ends – that's what happens after the first delivery. pic.twitter.com/ciYs1hvAre