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The federal government offers free COVID-19 tests and N95 masks

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The Biden administration is planning to give out 400 million N95 masks for free through pharmacies, grocery stores and community health centers. The idea being better access to high-quality masks might help control the spread of COVID-19. And after many weeks of promising that more tests will be available soon, the administration will start sending millions of rapid at-home COVID tests to people's homes, also free of charge. A new website covidtests.gov is now up and running, aimed at making the ordering process easy. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to discuss this. Hello. Good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So let's start with the basics. What is the process for ordering tests?

AUBREY: You know, it's really straightforward. You go to covidtests.gov. You type in your name. You type in your address. You share an email if you want shipping updates. And the tests will be mailed to you for free. In my experience - I ordered some yesterday - it is super easy, took me less than a minute. There is a limit to how many you can order - four per household. And they will be shipped out via the U.S. Postal Service usually within seven to 12 days of ordering, the administration says, with the first shipments in late January.

ELLIOTT: That's a bit of a wait...

AUBREY: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: ...Given that we're in this surge right now. What is taking so long?

AUBREY: You know, part of the explanation is that manufacturers are still trying to ramp up production. It also takes a bit of time to scale up a new program that will reach tens of millions of households. The Biden administration is purchasing 1 billion at-home rapid antigen tests. About 420 million of these tests are already under contract, with more contracts in the works. And remember; these tests are in addition to the millions of other COVID tests also being purchased with federal funds that are being distributed to long-term care facilities, to community health centers, rural health clinics and to schools. The American Rescue Plan included about $10 billion in funding to support COVID-19 testing in schools.

ELLIOTT: There has been some concern about just how accurate these tests are. What do we know about that?

AUBREY: You know, these rapid antigen tests are not great at detecting early infections before people are symptomatic. They're just not as sensitive as the PCR tests. So, you know, there may be some people asking, can you really rely on them? I think the answer is that while they're not perfect, these tests do give you some real-time information to act on if you follow the manufacturer's directions. So for the BinaxNOW test, this means doing two tests more than 24 hours apart because, often, early in an infection, the first test may come back negative. And there is some new data to show that the rapid antigen tests are about as reliable at detecting omicron as they were detecting at delta.

ELLIOTT: Now, briefly, what about people who might not have internet access? How will they be able to get these free tests?

AUBREY: You know, the Biden administration announced a phone line will be set up for people to call to order these tests. They're also working with community-based organizations that can help submit requests.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.