Free covid tests are meant to reduce inequity, but they’re highlighting it

Lisa Levy is a housing case manager at Columbus House in New Haven, Connecticut, where she oversees residents in a complex of 25 apartments. Each of her clients has a dual diagnosis of severe mental illness and a substance use disorder, and all have been homeless. “They’re among the most vulnerable people,” Levy says, “and my job is to keep them housed.”

Levy has struggled to get covid tests for her clients, particularly as the omicron variant spread rapidly across the US and many of them fell sick. When the White House launched its website last week offering four free tests per household, she says, she thought each client would get four free tests—a godsend for a group of people who desperately needed tests but couldn’t afford them and were often too unhealthy to stand in line for them.

She immediately went to the website and entered information for the first apartment, 101. When she tried to order tests for the next apartment, she was told she had already ordered the maximum number for her address. Over the next few days, Levy tried to fix the problem: She called the hotline and the US Postal Service, which is responsible for delivering the tests, scoured Facebook for tips, and tried switching the information in the address and apartment lines on the online form, all to no avail.

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Levy isn’t the only one struggling to get hold of tests. People living in apartments have repeatedly reported problems with the website, whose form often conflates apartments with buildings, meaning only one of the residents in any given apartment block has been able to register for the test kits. 

In addition to web glitches, the initiative seems to have left out some groups from consideration entirely, according to data from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including people without fixed addresses; the 11.8 million US households that have more than four members, who are more likely to be nonwhite; the 7.5 million households that do not have home internet access; and the 3.5 million that do not speak English or Spanish, the two languages in which the site is currently available. 

Far from reducing unequal access to testing, the initiative has highlighted it, with many of the most vulnerable, poorest people still unable to get tests.

The White House has deflected criticism of the problem, with Assistant Press Secretary Kevin Munoz telling The Verge that the errors “were only a small percentage” of overall experiences. Press Secretary Jen Psaki added, “Every website, in our view, comes with risk. We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two.”

​​But as has so often happened during this pandemic, where the government has failed, citizens have stepped in via the internet.

Almost immediately after the site launched, Twitter posts began appearing from people wanting to donate tests, and some groups that helped people find vaccine appointments last year pivoted to helping people get tests. The Facebook group Maryland Vaccine Hunters, for example, which started out crowdsourcing information about vaccine appointments, now posts up-to-date details about where to buy rapid tests and facilitates test donations. 

Mutual aid groups—community organizations that trade goods and services for people in need—have gone mainstream during the pandemic and have become increasingly active by offering protective equipment, helping people book vaccine appointments and, more recently, distributing tests. 

One such group is Serve Your City, a Washington, DC nonprofit that works with the city’s homeless population. To figure out who needed tests, Serve Your City referred to data collected from a hotline it had set up to help underprivileged people get vaccine appointments.

Still, these crowdsourced efforts come with a catch: they require reliable access to the internet. Maryland Vaccine Hunters has a robust Facebook thread of people willing to donate tests. But how can they help people who can’t get online?

Alternative routes to getting tests have been riddled with issues. In addition to the quirks of the online form, the White House did not set up a hotline until a couple of days after the launch, so people who needed to use the phone couldn’t get help. It’s also unclear who exactly oversees equitable distribution of the tests: representatives of the hotline referred us to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in turn referred us to the White House, which didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did the US Department of Health and Human Services or the US Postal Service.

That means people who are in dire need of these tests continue to have trouble procuring them.

“Covid is hitting this population the hardest,” Levy says of her clients. “They are on disability, they have limited resources, a lot of them are Black or Hispanic. They’re people who are really vulnerable.” On January 24, Levy called the hotline to try to place an order for residents in her building for the umpteenth time, but she was unsuccessful yet again.

Additional reporting by Eileen Guo.

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