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Great news: White House says new rapid COVID tests will ship within … 7-12 days of ordering

This feels like a dark joke Russians would have told each other in the Soviet Union. “The test will arrive just as soon as you’re fully recovered.”

Look on the “bright side,” though: It’s too late to do anything meaningful about the Omicron wave anyway. The time to get the federal test program up and running was six months ago, not next week. What does it matter at this point if the test kits are in your mailbox in three days or 30?

We’ve gone from “15 days to stop the spread” to 15 days to get tested.

Starting on Jan. 19, the website COVIDTests.gov will provide tests at no cost, including no shipping fee, the White House announced Friday…

But Americans shouldn’t expect a rapid turn-around on the orders and they will have to plan ahead and request the tests well before they meet federal guidelines for when to use a test.

The White House said “tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering” through the U.S. Postal Service, which reports shipping times of 1-3 days for its first-class package service in the continental United States.

Note well: It’s 7-12 days for the tests to go out the door, not 7-12 days of total transit time. You need to tack on delivery time too.

“So just order ahead and keep the tests for when you’ll need them,” you say. First of all, by the time Omicron is done, something like half the population will have had COVID. Hopefully those people won’t need to worry about infection again for a good long while, which means they also won’t need to worry about tests. Second, do you even realize what country you’re in? You want Americans to … plan ahead?

With COVID?

After having had a head start on the rest of the world, we still have a lower vaccination rate than every major European country. That’s the American way in all things: Ignore a growing risk, wait to react until a crisis is upon us, then hurriedly scramble to address it. Most of us will be ordering our tests on the day we first experience symptoms and not a moment sooner, thank you very much.

Here’s a question. When should tests optimally be used? Most people would say “as soon as you have symptoms” but I don’t think that’s right. If you had a solid supply of tests then sure, but all you’re getting here is a box of four. If each person in your household uses one test to confirm that they have COVID, then what? Knowing that you’re positive might be useful to your doctor in theory in prescribing a course of treatment, but in practice there doesn’t seem to be any standard treatment to prescribe for a typical mild case:

If Pfizer’s new miracle drug were widely available then it would be important to know early that you have COVID and not the flu, but it isn’t widely available. Good luck finding it even if you manage to get a prescription. Meanwhile, most monoclonal antibody treatments on the market don’t work on Omicron and the one that does is also in short supply.

So what are you learning from your positive test that you aren’t learning from simply having symptoms? If you’re sick with a fever and aches, etc, you should isolate regardless of whether it’s Omicron or the flu. (Spoiler: It’s probably Omicron.) There’s no point in testing yourself immediately; if anything, you might want to wait until your symptoms start to get worse, in which case you’ll need to know if you have COVID in order to know if your life is at risk, or until they start to better, in which case you’ll want to know if you’re no longer contagious and can leave quarantine.

If we had a bigger stockpile of tests we’d be able to test more judiciously, i.e. testing after symptoms first develop to confirm a COVID diagnosis and then again after symptoms have resolved to gauge contagiousness. If we had a *really* big supply then we could test as a precaution before meeting with others, to avoid community spread. If you’re meeting friends for dinner, say, you’d test an hour beforehand to make sure you’re not bringing COVID as a guest.

But we are where we are. Hopefully where we are is in the “exit wave” of the pandemic, such that in a few years the new federal testing kits will show up on eBay as heirlooms. Souvenirs from a dark, stupid era.

Exit question: Anyone want to put money on the new federal test-ordering website not being a sh*tshow when it goes live on Wednesday?

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