I was already skeptical — my experience of new government websites is forever tarnished by the debacle of healthcare.gov’s initial crash and burn. Plus, when I logged on, I knew I only had a few minutes between meetings, and I’ve never met a government website that didn’t require two forms of ID, proof of residency and endless forms to fill out.
Still, I clicked. Two minutes later, I had an email telling me that the tests would be on their way in a few weeks.
While I can’t remember the last time I encountered a government website that worked, I do remember having a similar feeling last spring, when suddenly vaccines were being competently distributed, appointments were plentiful and safety seemed on the horizon. Alas, the rise of the Delta and Omicron variants since then, and the lack of a robust response from our leaders as cases surged, has made it harder to feel optimistic in a way that lasts.
Putting all the doom we’ve been through aside for a moment, the relative ease of the website — combined with the sense that the Biden administration is newly recommitted to providing resources to Americans — feels like it could be a sign of brighter days ahead.
That’s assuming the United States Postal Service has recovered sufficiently from cuts under the Trump administration and is up to the task. On the one hand, this is a moment that will reassure us that direct government action in mitigating the pandemic can work. On the other, if it does work, it raises the question of why the federal government isn’t doing more.
For instance, the Biden administration announced Tuesday that N95 masks are going to be distributed for free through pharmacies, but why not just add them as an option to the test site? And, speaking of the test site, critics have rightly pointed out that the limit of four tests per address neglects the reality of many Americans’ lives, where multiple family members and/or generations co-reside.
But the testing site’s simplicity stirs in me a belief that while imperfect, government response isn’t something we should give up on just yet. Just in case logging on to websites providing government services isn’t a part of your daily routine, I can tell you that as the parent of a child on Medicaid, government websites and forms are usually not simple.
Our government is packed with what some call “administrative burdens” that make accessing services more difficult; bureaucratic hurdles that weed out those who lack the access, resources, or sufficient fortitude to overcome them. Just take, for example, the plan to get reimbursed by insurance for rapid tests purchased from retailers — but only up to $12 per test kit, and only if we save and submit receipts and only for those of us who have insurance. The tests are most effective when used repeatedly over a few days after a possible exposure, and these burdens are just enough of an obstacle that they will keep some, perhaps many, people from buying tests or using up the tests they already have, not wanting to deal with insurance (because, really, who does want to deal with insurance?), and these tests are most effective if used repeatedly over a few days when you think you might have been exposed to Covid. Covidtests.gov, on the other hand, is easy.
And it seems like it could scale. In a few weeks, we’ll all have four tests, but the government will have the infrastructure to send us four more, or 40 more, as the pandemic drags on (and if or when a new variant appears). Which is good, because four isn’t remotely sufficient to be useful on a population level.
It also signals a willingness to intervene more directly. Dr. Steven Thrasher, author of the forthcoming book “The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide,” told me over direct message that this was the first time where the federal government has given away a product related to fighting the pandemic that was normally sold in stores. “They’ve been giving away vaccines,” he said, “but a vaccine isn’t really a retail pocket. A home test is. So, it’s significant that people are not going to have to go to a store to buy them.”
Throughout the pandemic, individuals have been pressed to shoulder what should be collective burdens. I’m pretty well informed, but don’t have the expertise to judge what N95, KN95 or KF94 mask to use, even if I can afford them in large quantities. I bought a bunch of rapid tests in July when my family got an early Delta case of breakthrough Covid, but since then it’s been unpredictable when and where to get more. These are problems that the federal government, with its awesome power and resources, is much better positioned to solve compared to the 120 million or so American families to doing it on their own.
So these are the stakes of covidtests.gov. The tech has to function. The bugs (especially around some apartment buildings) need to be ironed out quickly. Americans need to take advantage of the program. And then the Biden administration has to decide, or be pushed to decide, to do this kind of thing much more often.
So, in a couple of weeks, assuming the post office can make it through snow, rain, heat or gloom of night, they aren’t just going to be delivering tests. They’ll be delivering a whole new way of fighting the pandemic: doing it together rather than separately. If it works, they’ll be bringing hope.
I hope it works.