DC wants to give away free rapid at-home COVID tests, but there are hurdles

D.C. officials said Friday that they want to be able to give away free rapid at-home COVID-19 tests, but there are procurement hurdles.

Patrick Ashley, with D.C. Health, told council members during a call that the District has been working toward being able to provide rapid at-home tests to the community, but “there are challenges with obtaining supplies quickly, especially without the emergency authorities that we used to have to be able to move very rapidly.”

“The supplies are expensive. They’re suppliers that D.C. government typically does not contract with. And so it is a challenge to be able to obtain those supplies,” Ashley said.

Ashley said they know about the programs in Virginia and Maryland where residents can pick up free, rapid at-home tests from their local library branches.

But another issue is that, without the emergency authorization, orders for the tests — which Ashley said cost about $23 — have to stay under $1 million.

He added that D.C. Health has around 20,000 of the tests on hand and placed an order for more a couple days ago.

At-Large Council member Christina Henderson asked exactly how many tests the District was able to get for under $1 million. Ashley put the number at 51,000.

City Administrator Kevin Donahue said the city plans to put forward emergency legislation that would “restore the authority” of D.C. Health toward the end of December.

“The context in which this came up was D.C. Health raising some really operational limitations that they have that could be addressed,” Donahue said.

He added that procuring supplies puts D.C. in a position where it’s competing with states, and even other countries, for limited supplies.

Ashley said the District has been getting materials from a company in California, and the process has been difficult.

He said it’s a company the D.C. government “has never done business” with before, and “frankly, (the company) has no interest in registering in our portal to be able to do business with us. And so that presents barriers of how do we quickly do business with them to be able to provide enough test-yourself kits, and be able to ramp up that production.”

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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