scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘Should we just send one to every American?’: Psaki faces backlash over response to whether rapid tests should be mailed to all

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki spoke during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Oct. 27, 2021.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

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.”

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.”

See additional reactions below:

Shannon Larson can be reached at Follow her @shannonlarson98.