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White House Press Secretary expresses regret over answer on free COVID testing

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Before President Biden announced a new plan Tuesday to distribute 500 million free COVID-19 tests to Americans in January, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed her own dismissive response to the idea of such a proposal just two weeks earlier.

While briefing the press at the White House on Dec. 6, Psaki scoffed when a reporter asked why the Biden administration had not made at-home coronavirus test kits available for free to all Americans, as the United Kingdom and Singapore have done.

“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki asked sarcastically. “Then what happens if you — if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a press briefing in front of a poster labeled
White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a press briefing at the White House on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Two weeks later, it appears, the White House has come around to the idea. Amid swiftly rising infection rates driven by the new Omicron variant, Biden announced Tuesday that his administration intends to purchase 500 million COVID-19 test kits and distribute them to people’s homes by mail, free of charge. The government is planning to create a website where people can request the tests, which won’t be available until January. It was not immediately clear how many tests every person or household will be allowed to request or how long the tests will take to arrive.

In light of the new testing initiative, Psaki was asked whether she’d reflected on the dismissive tone of her earlier response.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don't leave this podium and wish I would've said something with greater context or more precision or additional info,” Psaki told reporters. She said she regretted not including more context in her original answer about the administration’s existing efforts to expand access to free at-home tests, including an earlier initiative to distribute 50 million tests to community health centers and rural clinics.

“If anything, it was a lesson to me to include context,” she said, appearing to suggest that the White House did not actually reverse course, but rather, had been working to provide people with free at-home tests all along.

“To be clear … we’re not sending a test to every single home in the country,” Psaki added. “We’re making tests free and accessible, without the risk of them going to waste in the homes of people who do not want them.”

Press secretary Jen Psaki speaks at a White House briefing.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki addresses a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Psaki’s comments and the announcement of the administration’s testing plan come amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the heavily mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Omicron, which was first detected in the U.S. on Dec. 1, is already the country’s dominant variant, having rocketed from 12.6 percent of cases to 73.2 percent of cases in a single week. It took the hypercontagious Delta variant about four months to achieve such dominance.

The U.S. also seems poised to see record-breaking numbers of new cases. On Monday, 298,761 new COVID-19 cases were reported nationwide — just shy of the country’s single-day record of 300,777 set last January.

At the White House later Tuesday, Biden outlined new measures to minimize Omicron’s toll, while urging the unvaccinated to consider it their “patriotic duty” to get inoculated.

“To all these people who aren't vaccinated, you have an obligation to yourselves, to your family and, quite frankly (I know I'll get criticized for this), to your country,” Biden said. “Get vaccinated now. It's free. It's convenient. I promise you it saves lives. And I honest-to-God believe it's your patriotic duty.”

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