The Biden administration has shipped more than 90% of the orders placed on COVIDtests.gov, the White House’s top testing adviser said, capping an “unprecedented” effort to buy, pack and deliver millions of free at-home COVID-19 tests for Americans as the Omicron variant drove a record surge in demand last month.
“It’s a lot of firsts. It’s the biggest test acquisition in history. It’s the fastest delivery of anything to this number of households,” said Dr. Thomas Inglesby, who was tapped over the winter to serve as the White House COVID-19 response team’s senior adviser on testing.
Inglesby said getting testing kits from suppliers had been the “rate-limiting” step to fulfilling all of the initial requests, which the administration had initially said would “typically ship within 7 to 12 days of ordering.” The White House announced last month they had received around 60 million orders within 10 days after launching the site.
While some of the initial batch of orders were shipped as soon as 24 hours after being placed, millions of Americans ended up waiting weeks for their tests to be shipped — many arriving after the wave of Omicron cases had begun to ebb. The tests were being sent out on a first-come, first-served basis.
“Companies have been moving as fast as they have been able to and that pace has accelerated over time. As tests have been arriving, we’re getting them out as fast as we get them in from the manufacturers,” said Inglesby.
In some cases, Inglesby said the Biden administration had to build out the logistical infrastructure to speed the delivery of tests from factory floors to the U.S. Postal Service’s fulfillment centers, where they had contracted for thousands of mail workers to package and label pallets arriving from manufacturers.
Those efforts were led by a group assembled from across the U.S. Postal Service and an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services dubbed HCORE, which recently took over responsibilities for the Operation Warp Speed team that developed and distributed COVID-19 vaccines. The Biden administration also hired a senior vice president from FedEx, Inglesby said, to help manage logistics for the effort.
“For many companies, this was something that they had never done before on this scale, or at this speed. And so it was all in, from the companies and from the government side and the logistics providers, whether they were trucks or planes moving things around,” said Inglesby.
Of the firms contracted to supply the website’s first 500 million free tests — Abbott, iHealth Lab, Roche Diagnostics, Revival Health, Atlantic Trading, Siemens Healthineers — most declined or did not respond to requests for comment.
Kimberly Nissen, a spokesperson for Siemens Healthineers, said the company was “delivering according to schedule” for the Biden administration.
Challenges with the rollout
Officials say early challenges posed by the COVIDtests.gov rollout have largely been remedied, beyond simply ramping up supply to match demand.
One early concern was voiced by Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan, who accused the Biden administration’s efforts of cannibalizing domestic supply of the tests.
“We were acquiring our own, you know, the states have been on the front lines throughout this crisis. And now it appears as if, rather than producing more of these rapid tests, the federal government is just purchasing the ones that we had already contracted for,” the Republican governor told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” in January.
White House officials were quick to point to language in their contracts requiring that they “must not interfere with, or in any way disrupt, current production or delivery orders intended for any commercial or government entity located in the U.S. or its territories.”
Inglesby chalked up the majority of similar early complaints from companies and states to “confusion around distributors,” saying in cases like Maryland’s that federal officials moved quickly to contact suppliers and test manufacturers to remind them of the Biden administration contract’s requirements.
A spokesperson for Hogan confirmed the issue had been resolved and that Maryland was “receiving a stable supply of at-home test kits.”
“We have not heard any concerns about that probably in, I would say, for more than four weeks at this point,” said Inglesby.
For Americans whose addresses were rejected by the Postal Service’s form, another early complaint, some people were able to successfully order tests after residential P.O. boxes were added to the website’s eligibility.
More complicated situations, like buildings that were not registered as apartments in the Postal Service’s database or universities that redirect dormitory packages through a single mail center, defied simple IT fixes.
Those kinds of issues have been addressed through service requests with the Postal Service, which can be filed online or over the phone.
David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesperson, said the issue remained a “small percentage” of orders through the portal, but declined to share specific metrics on how many service requests had been filed.
“Many of them have been resolved and for those who haven’t, they’re working through. But it’s a very, very, at this point, very small minority,” said Inglesby.