After rejecting a plan for sending a free, at-home COVID-19 testing kit to all Americans, President Joe Biden has responded with something more modest in the face of the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant.
Americans are able to request online, from a newly-developed federal government website, a free COVID-19 test to be mailed to them. So far, 500 million tests have been allocated for this program, which may or may not be sufficient based on how many requests are made, or whether the number of tests per individual is limited. How quickly these orders will be processed also remains uncertain.
Separate from these concerns is another looming problem that this plan does not seem to address—namely, that those who are online to request a COVID-19 test may not be as many as imagined.
Numerous analysts have pointed out the persistent digital divide we face — namely, that at least 20 million American households currently lack broadband internet access. Less publicized is the portion of our population that already has residential broadband capability, but believes there is no value in connecting. It may be shocking to realize that 7 percent of U.S. adults, according to the Pew Research Center, do not use the internet at all. This figure has been relatively static for more than four years.
That’s because there continues to be a drop-off in those 65 and older who never go online — 25 percent of them in the latest Pew Center survey. That age group also is at the highest medical risk for contracting COVID-19, and would benefit greatly by receiving a home COVID-19 test, along with vital health and safety information on a 24/7 basis.
Other demographic analyses highlight disparities between internet users and nonusers based on education, household income, and community type; various factors clearly are at play regarding why this problem exists. In the longer term, especially in pandemic times, there should be a continuing focus on developing practical ways to reduce the percentage of nationwide internet nonusers as soon as possible. Clearly, we need to have a broader population base who can take advantage of the internet’s public health information and communications capabilities, especially those with the greatest health vulnerabilities.
More immediately, before the new home test-kit distribution plan rolls out in the coming weeks, it needs to offer a broader range of ordering capabilities. Landline and mobile phones are a more widespread way for Americans to make a request. Having the option of logging in or dialing in will be the next best thing to using the most ubiquitous communications medium—the U.S. Postal Service—to deliver these kits to everyone without requiring a prior request. The pandemic affects all Americans, and we need to pursue a testing regimen that is both free and as widely accessible as possible.