COVID

‘It’s about time’: Boston doctor applauds Biden’s plan to improve access to COVID-19 rapid tests 

“We could have used the presence of these rapid tests throughout this pandemic.”

Boxes of BinaxNow home COVID-19 tests for sale at a CVS. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

An infectious disease doctor in Boston is applauding the Biden administration’s plan to require private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests, but says the effort to improve access to the rapid tests should have happened sooner. 

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Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, the founding director of Boston University’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research, reacted on Thursday to Biden’s new plan during an appearance on “The Mehdi Hasan Show” on MSNBC.

“It’s about time,” she said. “I think we could have used the presence of these rapid tests throughout this pandemic.”

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The way the over-the-counter rapid antigen tests work is that they detect specific proteins from the virus, unlike the PCR tests that pick up on genetic material from COVID-19, she explained. The difference means that PCR tests are able to detect the virus at much lower levels.

“[Antigen tests] may not be accurate when the amount of virus in a person is very low, but they tend to detect it when a person is most contagious,” she said. “So what they lose potentially on either side of sensitivity, they make up because they are easily available and if you do them serially, and a lot of people do them, you can actually decrease transmission.”

The best way to think of rapid tests is as the speed bumps you would install to address a speeding problem in your community, the doctor said. 

You want a bunch of them, and you want everybody to have to go through them often so that it changes behavior, she said.

“People, when they find out they’re positive, they may not do the activities they were going to do, such as travel for winter,” Bhadelia told MSNBC. “And … when it comes to these rapid tests, you want them to be free and easily available and accessible. And the plan now is going to try to bridge some of those things.”

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The Boston University doctor said she still wants to hear the details of Biden’s plan, including exactly how insurance companies will go about reimbursing the cost of the tests. 

She said it is important that the process does not create another hurdle for people looking for tests.

As it is, the two most common over-the-counter at-home tests typically cost just over $20. 

“That’s still not accessible,” Bhadelia said. “If you want somebody to use it, if you want everyone to go through the speed bump often to change the speeding problem, you need to make it so that everybody can access it. And that has not been the case so far.”

The White House said on Thursday that under Biden’s plan for improving access to rapid testing, as many of 150 million people in the country with private insurance would pay less for at-home tests, but those covered by Medicare and Medicaid would not be eligible. In addition, the Biden administration said it is making 50 million tests free to older people and other vulnerable populations at senior centers and community health sites. 

The push to ramp up testing is part of a broader winter plan from Biden to combat surging COVID-19 cases and the emergence of the omicron variant.

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The effort also includes kicking off an urgent campaign to encourage Americans to get their vaccine booster shots.

Bhadelia told Hasan on his show that when it comes to omicron, about which much still remains unknown (including how much more transmissible it is or whether it causes more severe illness), rapid tests should still work. 

“Let’s say we find out omicron is a more transmissible variant, it becomes even more important to have rapid tests around because you know that this is a variant that people can very quickly pass on to other people,” Bhadelia said. “And so waiting to go in for a test with your medical provider may delay people finding out their status. And at-home tests are going to be critical in changing that transmission.”

Watch Dr. Bhadelia’s full appearance below:

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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