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US launches online site for ordering free rapid at-home COVID tests

A resident receives free rapid at-home COVID-19 test kits at a vaccine clinic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.Hannah Beier/Bloomberg

Americans will be able to order free rapid coronavirus tests online at COVIDTests.gov beginning on Wednesday, but the tests will take time to arrive: they will typically ship within 7 to 12 days after being ordered, senior Biden administration officials said on Friday.

The announcement of the website fulfills a promise President Biden made before Christmas, when he said his administration would purchase 500 million rapid at-home coronavirus tests and distribute them to Americans free of charge. On Thursday, Biden announced his intent to purchase an additional 500 million tests, bringing the total to 1 billion. The administration has already contracted for 420 million tests.


But the lag in shipping means that Americans may not have access to the tests until the end of January at the earliest. In some parts of the country, that may be after the peak of the current surge of coronavirus cases, fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

The Postal Service will handle shipping and delivery through first-class mail, the officials said.

The officials did not have a specific time when the website would go live; they simply said it would happen sometime next Wednesday. They said that each household would be limited to ordering four tests. Beginning on Saturday, however, people with private insurance are supposed to be able to seek reimbursement for tests they purchase themselves. Some insurers say it will probably take weeks to fully set up the system the White House envisions.

Free tests will also be available at some community health centers, rural clinics, and federal testing sites, the officials said.

Testing has been a challenge for the federal government since the earliest days of the pandemic. Supply chain shortages made them hard to come by, and overloaded laboratories took days to process them.


Omicron variant beginning to plateau or decline in some areas


In a handful of places that were among the first to see a surge of the Omicron variant last month, reports of new cases have started to level off or decline.

Daily case reports have been falling rapidly around Cleveland, Newark, and Washington, D.C. There were also early signs in Chicago, New York, Puerto Rico, and hard-hit ski resort towns in Colorado that cases were hitting a plateau or starting to drop.

That has raised the prospect that a national peak in the Omicron wave may be approaching, but most of the country continues to see explosive growth in virus cases, with some Western and Southern states reporting 400 percent increases over the past two weeks. Officials also warn that hospitalizations and deaths lag behind actual infections.

The speed and scale of the Omicron surge has disrupted American life and taxed a health care system that was already strained by an autumn uptick driven by the Delta variant.

Christina Ramirez, a biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it was too early to tell where the United States was in its latest surge.

“We’ve been fooled by the virus before,” Dr. Ramirez said. “The next couple of weeks will be very telling.”


US promotes N95 or KN95 masks to slow spread of virus

NEW YORK — US health officials on Friday encouraged more Americans to wear the kind of N95 or KN95 masks used by health-care workers to slow the spread of the coronavirus.


Those kinds of masks are considered better at filtering virus from the air. But they previously were in short supply, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials had said they should be prioritized for health care workers.

In updated guidance posted late Friday afternoon, CDC officials removed concerns related to supply shortages and more clearly said that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks provide the most protection.

However, agency officials noted some masks are harder to tolerate than others, and urged people to choose good-fitting masks that they will wear consistently.

The CDC has evolved its mask guidance throughout the pandemic.

In its last update, in September, CDC officials became more encouraging of disposable N95 masks, saying they could be used in certain situations if supplies were available. Examples included being near a lot of people for extended periods of time on a train, bus or airplane; taking care of someone in poor health; or being more susceptible to severe illness.

On Thursday, President Biden announced that his administration was planning to make “high-quality masks,” including N95s, available for free. He said more details were coming next week. The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said.

The latest CDC guidance notes that there is a special category of “surgical N95″ masks, that are specially designed for protection against blood splashes and other operating room hazards. Those are not generally available for sale to the public, and should continue to be reserved for health care workers, the agency said.



COVID medical advisory board members resign in Poland

WARSAW — More than two thirds of Poland’s COVID-19 medical advisory body resigned Friday saying the government was not heeding their advice in its response to the pandemic.

In a statement, 13 of the board’s 17 members said that with “growing frustration” they were experiencing a “lack of political possibilities to introduce the optimal and globally tested methods of fighting the pandemic.”

They also complained of a “growing tolerance” in the government for state officials playing down the threat of the pandemic or the need for vaccination.

The mass resignation comes days after a regional education official drew criticism for describing vaccination against COVID-19as an “experiment.” The right-wing government has ignored calls for her dismissal.

In a letter to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, outgoing board members said “very limited action” was taken during the fall surge and against the ongoing threat from the fast-spreading omicron variant, “despite an expected huge number of deaths.”

Morawiecki’s office responded saying that in its decisions the government had to take into account various differing opinions coming also from business people, educators, and others. It said the formula of the advisory body will be changed, but gave no details.

In response to an infection surge because of Omicron, Poland’s government has introduced restrictions on access to indoor public areas, but avoided a lockdown or outdoor mask mandate.


Poland has recorded more than 100,000 virus-related deaths, and less than 60 percent of the 38 million population is vaccinated.


Italy introduces stricter mask requirements

ROME — To mask or not to mask is a question Italy settled early in the COVID-19 outbreak with a vigorous “yes.’’ Now the one time epicenter of the pandemic in Europe hopes even stricter mask rules will help it beat the latest infection surge.

Other countries are taking similar action as the more transmissible — yet, apparently, less virulent — Omicron variant spreads through the continent.

With Italy’s hospital ICUs rapidly filling with mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, the government announced on Christmas Eve that FFP2 masks — which offer users more protection than cloth or surgical masks — must be worn on public transport, including planes, trains, ferries, and subways.

That’s even though all passengers in Italy, as of this week, must be vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19. FFP2s also must now be worn at theaters, cinemas, and sports events, indoors or out, and can’t be removed even for their wearers to eat or drink.

Italy reintroduced an outdoor mask mandate. It had never lifted its indoor mandate — even when infections sharply dropped in the summer.

Spain reinstated its outdoor mask rule on Christmas Eve. Portugal brought masks back at the end of November, after having largely dropped the requirement when it hit its goal of vaccinating 86 percent of the population.

Greece has also restored its outdoor mask mandate, while requiring an FFP2 or double surgical mask on public transport and in indoor public spaces.

This week the Dutch government’s outbreak management team recommended a mask mandate for people over 13 in busy public indoor areas such as restaurants, museums, and theaters, and for spectators at indoor sports events. Those places are currently closed under a lockdown until at least Friday, Jan. 14.

In France, the outdoor mask mandate was partially reinstated in December in many cities, including Paris. The age for children to start wearing masks in public places was lowered to 6 from 11.


Study: Babies born to unvaccinated women with COVID at higher risk of death

Pregnant women who are unvaccinated against the coronavirus are not only more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, but also at more risk of seeing their newborns die less than a month after birth, according to a peer-reviewed study in Scotland that was published Thursday.

The study was released in Nature Medicine, a monthly journal. The authors looked at more than 144,000 pregnancy records going back to March 2020, when the first coronavirus case was detected in Scotland.

But the authors focused on data between December 2020 and October last year because that was when vaccine shots and tests were more widely available. During that period, the unvaccinated made up 77 percent of all pregnant women who were infected and more than 90 percent who required hospitalization and critical care.

All the infant deaths examined in the study occurred for mothers who had not been vaccinated at the time of their COVID-19 diagnoses, the authors said.

The results add urgency to vaccination efforts to protect both parents and babies during the remainder of the pandemic, the authors said.