The White House’s long-awaited website for ordering free Covid-19 rapid tests is finally live. The new page, covidtests.gov, arrives amid a shortage of rapid tests and a surge in Covid-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant. While this new program isn’t flawless, flooding the country with easily accessible rapid tests could be a powerful tool to fight the pandemic.
Covidtests.gov is part of the White House’s plan to buy and distribute 1 billion rapid tests over the coming months. The end goal of the new testing initiative is to make it easier for people to find out whether they have Covid-19, and if necessary, isolate to curb the spread of the virus. Technically, covidtests.gov wasn’t supposed to launch until January 19, but the government released a “beta phase” version of the site ahead of that deadline, allowing many people to order tests early. Within a few hours of launch, the beta version became the most popular government website by a long shot.
While it represents an improvement over the situation late last year, when rapid tests were not only very difficult to find but also expensive, the Biden administration’s new program comes with some caveats. First of all, each American household can only order four tests — regardless of how many people live there. And some of the people who’ve tried to order tests have already run into technical issues, which could get worse as more users visit the site.
“Hopefully, this isn’t a scenario where those who are able to jump online first are the only ones who can get tests,” Lindsey Dawson, the associate director of HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Recode. Dawson added that the beta launch could help the new Covid-19 site avoid some of the bugs from the early Healthcare.gov days.
Given the frenzy around this new Covid-19 testing option, you probably have some questions about how to navigate the program. Let’s start with the basics of the website.
So this new website lets you order free Covid-19 tests. How hard could it be?
The process is designed to be very straightforward. To order your household’s batch of four at-home rapid antigen tests, go to covidtests.gov, which explains that everyone with a residential address in the United States (as well as people living at overseas diplomatic and military outposts) is eligible to get the tests.
Once you’re on the homepage, click on the bright blue “Order Free At-Home Tests” button, and you’ll get redirected to a special section of the United States Postal Service’s website. (USPS partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services to help with the logistics of the new program, and you can also start your order through the USPS website.) Fill out the form on the page by providing your name, delivery address, and, if you want an email confirmation, your email address. The page does have a box with your order information, including a spot for a dollar amount, but it does not ask for any credit card information. The dollar amount should remain at $0.00 throughout the ordering process.
Once you fill out that form, click on the bright green “Check Out Now” button, and you should be sent to a new page that includes a USPS tracking number. If you provided your email address, you’ll also receive an email with that same confirmation number. If you live in the continental US, your tests will be shipped with USPS’s First Class Package Service. If you live in Alaska or Hawaii, in a US territory, or at an overseas diplomatic or military address, your tests will be sent through Priority Mail. The site also has a frequently asked questions section that explains how to track your order and how to use the rapid tests once they’re delivered.
Don’t wait to order tests. Because tests are supposed to take between seven to 12 days to ship, the government recommends that people order tests on the site now, rather than waiting until they have symptoms or are exposed to someone with Covid-19. The hope is that everyone in the country will soon have their own mini stockpile of tests to use when they need.
Seems easy enough. What’s the catch?
There’s no catch, but there are several caveats you should keep in mind.
The biggest limitation of Biden’s new free rapid test program is the four-test limit, and for now, there are no exceptions to this rule. While four tests might seem like enough for a small household, rapid tests work best when they’re used in succession, and one person may need more than one test to catch a Covid-19 case.
To prevent the same household from ordering more than four tests, the USPS website is designed to catch people who put in the same address for multiple orders. This might cause some people who live in apartment buildings to encounter an error message saying that someone has already ordered tests for their address. Because USPS is only sending rapid test kits to residential addresses, some people might receive an error stating that their address is listed as a business address in USPS records and isn’t eligible for free tests.
If you run into these problems, double-check that you’re including a specific apartment or unit number when filling out the order form. You can try entering the unit number in both the first line of your address and the separate apartment number box. USPS also has an address directory website that you can use to check that you’re entering your home address the same way that USPS does in its records. If that doesn’t work, consider calling USPS’s help desk at 1-800-275-8777 or filing a service request.
“Every website launch, in our view, comes with risk,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two.”
For those who don’t have access to a computer or an internet connection, the government has also set up a phone line. For now, that number is the same number that the government’s vaccine hotline: 1-800-232-0233. This number is the only option for ordering the federal government’s free tests without visiting the online portal. You will not be able to stop by a local post office and pick up the tests in person.
What are my options if I need more than four tests?
Beyond ordering tests on the new government website, you can still buy rapid tests at pharmacies and online — and you might be able to get reimbursed for them. If you are on a private insurance plan, Medicaid, or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, you’re entitled to get at least some, if not all, of the cost of up to eight tests reimbursed every month, according to new insurance guidance issued by the Biden administration in January.
If you don’t have insurance or rely on Medicare and need more than the four tests provided by the federal government, you should seek out free tests from state or local organizations.
If my private insurance covers rapid tests, how do I get reimbursed?
First things first: Save the receipt for any Covid-19 test you buy. Beyond that, exactly how you get reimbursed for at-home rapid tests depends on which insurance plan you have and where you bought the test.
Some insurance companies have partnered with certain pharmacies so that their customers can get tests without going through the reimbursement process. If your plan doesn’t do this, you should contact your insurance company for details on filing for a reimbursement.
Some insurance companies have made the reimbursement process much easier than others. For instance, if you have UnitedHealthcare, you can already pick up a rapid test for free at any Walmart or Rite Aid pharmacy, as long as you have your insurance card. If you have Kaiser Permanente, you can submit a reimbursement claim through a website. If you have Cigna, you’re facing a more arduous process that involves filling out a paper reimbursement form that must be mailed or faxed to the company. That Cigna reimbursement form is different from the forms you use for other insurance claims.
Also, keep in mind that it may take some time for insurance companies’ rapid test reimbursement systems to become fully operational. Some insurance companies may change their approach in the coming weeks and months.
Getting a rapid test still feels complicated. When will things be easy?
The testing situation is improving, but it’s not perfect. There are still a lot of unknowns that have thrust even more uncertainty into an already very uncertain period of the pandemic. Even with this new federal government website, you don’t know for certain whether your test will actually arrive by the time you’ll need it, or whether you’ll have enough tests to catch a Covid-19 case should you get sick.
Still, covidtest.gov is a great opportunity to stock up on supplies while you can, and the new insurance benefits — if you’re lucky enough to have them — are better than paying full price for at-home tests. No matter how you do it, you’ll probably benefit from having some rapid tests around. And as the experts say, test early and test often. Things will get better.
Update, January 19, 2022, 10:30 am: This story was updated to include more information about USPS’s website and a phone number for ordering tests.