As the number of COVID-19 cases spike throughout the country, and as the new variant Omicron continues to spread, one thing has become very clear: Vaccines, though tremendously effective, should not be treated as the only tool to manage the pandemic. To the contrary, vaccination campaigns — which should remain a major focus of governments around the world — have to be viewed as part of a broader toolkit in preventing case surges, one that comes with free and easy-to-access testing, reasonable mask mandates, and responsible social distancing protocols.
Yet for the better part of a year, the Biden administration has acted on the view that vaccines are America’s one-way ticket out of the pandemic. And that has come at a cost: While people in other countries, particularly those in Europe and Asia, have abundant access to free or very cheap testing kits, Americans are still having trouble getting their hands on at-home tests, which has prevented many from building the habit of getting tested on a regular basis.
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in May that vaccinated people don’t need to get tested even if they’ve come in close contact with someone who tested positive — a guideline it later reversed — the reality is that testing should become a routine part of Americans’ lives for as long as the pandemic is around. That way people with asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections can know when to stay at home and avoid going into work or social gatherings in order to stop the spread.
And while the Biden administration has recently ramped up efforts to make tests more accessible — buying $1 billion worth of at-home kits from manufacturers and requiring private insurers to reimburse clients for tests — the White House is still falling short when it comes to making tests widely available to anyone who wants them. “The plan they just put forth won’t accomplish that,” Julia Raifman, a health policy professor at the Boston University School of Public Health told the Globe editorial board.
In order for President Biden to actually make testing a central part of his plan to contain COVID, as he said he wants to, then his administration has to increase production of tests, make them free or, at the very least, extremely cheap, and distribute them to as many people as possible, especially essential workers. “It’s not that difficult to make it more available,” Raifman said. “I think they just haven’t made it a priority.”
Indeed, other countries have been able to incorporate testing as part of their everyday lives. In Germany, for example, people have been required to get tested on a regular basis in order to access places like restaurants, hotels, or gyms, and the government has made sure that people can easily access tests when they need to. At-home tests have been widely available at gas stations, supermarkets, and pharmacies since the beginning of the year, and testing sites are ubiquitous — Berlin alone has 1,300 testing centers, whereas Chicago, a comparably-sized city, has 147. And in Britain, the government has been providing its citizens up to two rapid tests per week since April.
By comparison, Massachusetts has 448 testing locations across the entire state, not all of which are free to use. Governor Baker says he plans to fill the gap left behind by the federal government by boosting testing capacity. In order to do that, he should be sure to follow the example of neighboring states like New Hampshire, which is sending out free at-home tests to residents who request them.
Biden’s current plan for testing requires insurers to reimburse people for kits, but going through insurance — especially having to apply for reimbursement — adds too much friction in the process of getting tested and might discourage people from doing it altogether because it’s too much of a hassle. And the obvious problem with relying on insurers is that far too many people are uninsured. While Biden said the government would send 50 million free tests to distribution centers for people without insurance to pick up, that, too, is not enough, according to experts.
The White House has said that the president will invoke the Defense Production Act in order to boost production of rapid tests on a number of occasions. But they have so far mostly relied on the market to meet demand, and the market is failing to deliver on its own. Maine, for example, purchased tens of thousands of tests earlier this year to stock up schools, group homes, prisons, and other facilities, but state officials said that they have not received the equipment in time.
Ultimately, tests can only go so far on their own, as is the case with vaccines, masks, or social distancing. That’s why it’s time for the Biden administration to stop thinking of vaccines as Americans’ only path out of the pandemic. It’s going to take a more holistic approach. Tests for anyone who wants them are a good place to start.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.