On a bitter cold afternoon last Friday, lines of people awaiting free COVID-19 tests stretched around the block at a public library in Rockville, Maryland. Looking at the scene reminded me of seeing East Germans lined up in endless queues to receive their potato and sauerkraut rations. But few of the people docilely waiting in Rockville recognized that their plight was the latest of a long series of federal fiascos hatched by a federal agency headquartered a few miles away.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, President Donald Trump ludicrously proclaimed that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.” That was baloney then and, unfortunately, despite a barrage of political promises in the meantime, it is still malarkey today.
The failure to provide promised tests
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Trump administration policymakers blocked the speedy development and deployment of private testing that could have provided Americans with far better awareness to the perils they faced. Instead, the CDC sent out poorly designed, contaminated tests to health departments that gave false readings. (Trump boasted those tests were “perfect.”)
As The New York Times reported last month, “The distribution of faulty test kits, at a time when no other tests were authorized, set back health officials’ efforts to detect and track the virus.”
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden hammered Trump’s perceived negligence and rallied voters by promising: “I will shut down the virus.” In June 2020, Biden promised to set up a “pandemic testing board” along the lines of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Production Board.
A Biden campaign plan promised “to massively surge a nationwide campaign and guarantee regular, reliable, and free access to testing.” Shortly before Election Day, Biden declared that America needed “faster, cheaper screening tests that you could take right at home or in school. Look, what we have right now isn’t anywhere near good enough.”
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In his first week in office, Biden created the COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board. A week later, Biden promised that congressional enactment of his American Rescue Plan legislation would “ramp up testing.” In his televised speech on the first anniversary of COVID lockdowns on March 11, Biden promised, “We continue to work on making at-home testing available.”
However, when a team of health agency officials pushed the White House to purchase millions of rapid COVID-19 tests, the administration rebuffed the proposal. Then, last July, Biden promised, “We’re going to deploy things like testing to expand detection of the virus.”
As the delta variant spurred a COVID-19 surge, Biden promised in September that he was “taking steps to make testing more available, more affordable” so that “every American, no matter their income, can access free and convenient tests.”
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The following month, top health experts from Harvard and private foundations pushed the Biden administration to purchase 700 million COVID-19 test kits a month to distribute to Americans in December ahead of a winter surge. Vanity Fair exposed the details of how his officials nixed the plan, but Biden denied last month that he had rejected such a proposal.
A Biden administration official told The Washington Post that “White House health aides believed that once Americans were vaccinated, few would need testing.” The administration’s blunders were compounded because the CDC first ignored and then downplayed the surge in infections among fully vaccinated Americans.
The Biden team continued to offer wishful thinking in lieu of tests. At a White House briefing on Dec. 7, Biden COVID czar Jeff Zients proclaimed, “Everyone in America has access to free testing in an efficient and effective way, and we’ve developed multiple access points for free testing.”
Public control of distribution is failing
After chaos broke out in December with soaring infection rates and severe shortages of testing, Biden declared on Jan. 4: “I know this remains frustrating – believe me, it’s frustrating to me – but we’re making improvements (on testing). Look, we have more capacity for in-person tests, and we should see waiting lines shorten and more appointments freed up.”
Biden boasted of requiring private insurance companies to reimburse people for the cost of at-home tests, but that is scant consolation to people who cannot find tests anywhere.
The U.S. Postal Service will begin delivering COVID-19 test kits to Americans who filed online requests, but they will arrive long after the omicron variant set records for infections and disrupted Americans’ lives.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has relied on a command-and-control approach that minimizes private innovation and maximizes dependency on federal bureaucrats. As ProPublica recently detailed, “Many companies with at-home tests have been stymied by an FDA review process that has flummoxed experts and even caused one agency reviewer to quit in frustration.”
David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, groused, “It’s an outrage that rapid tests aren’t dirt cheap and plentiful on grocery store shelves” – as they are in South Korea and many other nations where private companies were not paralyzed by pointless bureaucratic edicts.
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Scott Lincicome, a Duke Law School lecturer, recently noted in Barron’s that the latest “fix” is “is actually the president’s sixth promise to subsidize and plan our way to testing abundance.” Germany permits sales of more than 60 rapid COVID-19 tests, “including several made in the United States for export only.” Germans can easily buy tests for a dollar while many Americans can’t find and purchase a test at any price.
The FDA has “never been enthusiastic about letting people test themselves,” ProPublica reports. “In the 1980s, the FDA banned home tests for HIV on the grounds that people who tested positive might do harm to themselves if they did not receive simultaneous counseling. In the 2010s, the agency cracked down on home genetic testing kits, concerned that people might make rash medical decisions as a result.”
David Kessler, who is Biden’s chief science officer for COVID-19 response, epitomized this mindset with his declaration in 1992 when he was FDA commissioner: “If members of our society were empowered to make their own decisions … then the whole rationale for the (FDA) would cease to exist.”
Unfortunately, few Americans recognize the FDA fingerprints on the COVID-19 testing debacle. Federal health agencies have had more blunders than practically anyone expected during this pandemic. The least that Uncle Sam can do is get out of the way of private efforts to help Americans recognize the risks in their own lives.