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White House adviser discusses U.S. coronavirus testing shortages

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Soon you may not have to pull out your wallet to get an at-home COVID test. The White House announced today new details about its plan to expand free testing to Americans. Starting this weekend, insurance companies and health plans will be required to cover at least eight at-home tests per person per month. Dr. Tom Inglesby has just joined the White House COVID-19 Response Team as senior adviser for testing and joins us now.

Welcome.

TOM INGLESBY: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I think we've all heard stories of people who can't find a test or have to pay high prices for it. Before we get to the details of today's announcement, just give us the big picture - how far is the U.S. right now from where you would like it to be on access to tests?

INGLESBY: Ari, well, first of all, I think it's useful just to look back a bit. The president has made testing a major priority since the first days of the administration, and a whole lot has happened in the year since the administration began. And the focus has been to expand the number of places where people can get tested, expand the number of tests that are authorized, that people can use, expand the capacity for testing around the country...

SHAPIRO: So progress has been made, but the question is, how far is there left to go?

INGLESBY: Yes. There is obviously much more progress to be made. We're going to - and we're pulling all of the levers that are there to increase capacity. I think if you look back in the summertime, there were 25 million over-the-counter tests available in August. This last month, there were 300 million, so more than a tenfold rise. But we're going to keep pressing forward. We know there's much more work to do. And there will be a continued rise in the availability of over-the-counter tests in the months ahead, including...

SHAPIRO: A continued rise in the months ahead, but some of the forecasts say that omicron could spike within a month, so time is of the essence here.

INGLESBY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Today's news that insurance will reimburse people for tests doesn't help those who can't find a pharmacy or drugstore to sell them a test. When do you think supply will meet demand?

INGLESBY: We know that pharmacies are restocking their shelves after the holidays, and numbers are beginning to trend up. And we will be getting more supply. There are more manufacturers that are authorized to make these tests. We saw - the last week of December, we saw two new major manufacturers get their authorization to make these tests, and they'll be beginning to ship those tests in the country in January. So we're hopeful that over the course of the month, people will find it easier and easier to get these tests after the holiday surge has passed us. But we're moving ahead on all fronts.

SHAPIRO: Once people do get a test, getting reimbursed from their insurance company is certainly better than paying out of pocket, but still a potential inconvenience. I was in the U.K. for the global climate summit in November, and people were literally handing out free seven-packs of at-home tests on street corners. Do you foresee a time when the U.S. gets to where the U.K. is on this, or is that even the goal?

INGLESBY: Well, you know, if you look around the world today, every country in the world right now is having difficulty meeting the demand in the middle of omicron. So headlines in the U.K. and countries around the world are similar to ours. People are very interested in these tests, and it's difficult to keep up with demand. But I do foresee a time where it will be much easier to access over-the-counter tests. There are more suppliers that are likely to come online in January, more manufacturers. And the president's 500 million antigen test distribution plan that he announced right before the holidays - that is a major spur for the market around the world to make more and more tests. And the plan that we announced today regarding insurance also will indicate to the market that they will be paid for and they will - this will be an ongoing demand for them, and this will spur the market as well.

SHAPIRO: A group of Democratic senators sent the administration a list of some pretty pointed questions about testing, and it's noteworthy that this letter comes from members of the president's own party. One of the questions is, does the administration have a plan to set up a process for individuals to report their rapid COVID-19 test results? This would be to tally the at-home tests that are not currently part of the national count. Is there such a plan?

INGLESBY: There is work going on to that goal. We're not there yet, but there is technology that's been developed that is already in place in some places in the country. And we do plan to try to make that more available to testing sites and to the nontraditional testing locations that have been opening in the last six months as well as the over-the-counter market.

SHAPIRO: I would like to play you something that Florida's Republican governor Ron DeSantis said on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Before COVID, did anyone go out and seek testing to determine if they were sick? It's usually you feel like you're sick, and then you get tested to determine what you're - what you maybe have come down with.

SHAPIRO: And now, obviously, there are many examples of proactive testing for diseases, from mammograms to colonoscopies, and that advice does run counter to the guidance of public health experts. But the question I'd like to ask you is whether the administration can implement this plan without the support of governors, especially in big states like Florida where omicron cases are spiking.

INGLESBY: Yeah, absolutely. We have - the president's plan is going to distribute tests directly to Americans through a website, so it doesn't depend on what local leaders will say about it. And the plan or the continued distribution in pharmacies and websites, online retailers - that will continue despite or with the support or without the support of local leaders - hopefully, with the support.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Tom Inglesby is a White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 Response Team. Previously, he served as senior advisor to the secretary of Health and Human Services.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

INGLESBY: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.