Skeptical Psaki: What do you want us to do, send free COVID rapid tests to every American?

After this clip from yesterday afternoon began circulating, a good half-dozen doctors and scientists who I follow on Twitter replied, “OH MY GOD YES. WE SAID THIS A YEAR AGO.”

It’s worth 60 seconds to scroll through Mediaite’s round-up of all the exasperated experts reacting to what she said. Failing to make rapid tests cheap and widely available has been arguably the worst government failure of the pandemic and has been identified as such for months by scientists, apparently with Jen Psaki never once noticing. If every American household had rapid tests on hand, you could swab yourself before jumping in the shower in the morning and know whether you have COVID by the time you get out. If you test positive, you stay away from other people until you test negative again. We could prevent a lot — a lot — of pre-symptomatic transmission that way, even allowing for the fact that rapid tests aren’t as foolproof as laboratory PCR tests are. And considering how expensive COVID is in so many ways, from the cost of hospital care to lost hours at work to family disruption and so on, the expense of outfitting 330 million people with tests might well be cheaper in the long run than proceeding without them. Vaccinating 200 million people wasn’t cheap but it was cheaper than the alternative.

Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard, has been making the case for widespread rapid testing since summer *2020.* Sixteen months later, he watched the president’s official spokesman scoff at the idea yesterday and was aghast:

Another doctor called it the single worst answer Psaki’s given as press secretary:

Rapid tests are literally free in the UK, just as the vaccines are here, and you can have them sent to your home. Meanwhile, a quick check of Amazon this morning finds rapid tests going for around 20 bucks a pop in the U.S. and the most well-known, Abbott’s Binax, isn’t available. The punchline is that the White House and its media allies have begun to grouse lately that Biden’s policy options to contain COVID are running thin, especially compared to European leaders. Mitigation measures aren’t as polarized politically over there as they are here and Europe’s bureaucrats aren’t constrained by the same constitutional limits. Biden can push the envelope on vaccine mandates and he can encourage masking but what’s left to do beyond that?

Well … he could pursue an Operation Warp Speed type federal initiative to produce rapid tests and make them freely available to everyone. Frankly, he should have ordered that on January 20 — or, better yet, Trump should have ordered it last March. Someone tell Psaki.

A Scottish politician said recently that he takes a rapid test every time he leaves the house if he plans to meet with people from other households. This seems to have offended populists for reasons I don’t understand — presumably they’ve reached the point culturally where any attempt to control COVID is illegitimate overkill — but enabling people to test themselves before they interact with others is precisely the point of making tests free and ubiquitous. But here’s the catch: When push comes to shove, Americans would still need to be willing to take them. The tests are noninvasive and require nothing more than a swab and the kit, but the combination of laziness and nihilism in the U.S. means universal adoption will never be achieved. In fact, how long would it be before anti-vax propaganda began incorporating arguments that the rapid tests contain some sort of dangerous ingredient or government tracking technology? A week, maybe?

For all the hype about easy access to rapid tests in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be helping them to contain COVID much:

Thankfully, the long wave in cases that the UK has endured hasn’t translated into a surge in deaths. Roughly the same number of people are testing positive lately as during the worst of the country’s winter wave but the death toll is just 10 percent or so now of what it was then, no doubt a function of more immunity in the population. Still, if free rapid tests are the key to limiting transmission, it’s hard to explain why there seems to be so much transmission in Britain. My guess is that it’s a matter of many/most people not bothering to take one before leaving home in the morning. And if compliance is a problem there, where there isn’t as much political resistance to government efforts to control the pandemic, it’s a cinch that it’d be an even bigger problem here.

Which isn’t a reason not to do it. As bad as the UK’s case counts are, they might be drastically worse without rapid testing. But anyone who thinks that supplying every U.S. household with free tests is the key to bringing COVID to its knees is kidding themselves.