White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has found herself on the receiving end of an avalanche of furious tweets from medical professionals and researchers, who panned her for deriding the idea of mailing free at-home COVID tests to every American.
On Monday, the hashtag #PsakiBomb lit up on Twitter, after the Biden administration mouthpiece had a tense exchange with NPR reporter Mara Liasson.
Liasson inquired of Psaki why the US was lagging behind other countries, including Germany, the UK and South Korea, in offering at-home COVID tests free of charge, or for a nominal fee, to all Americans.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was widely panned on Twitter after mocking the notion of sending every American at-home COVID tests for free
NPR’s Mara Liasson (center) asked why the US was lagging behind other countries in offering at-home COVID tests free of charge
TRANSCRIPT OF PRESS ROOM EXCHANGE:
And I have one quick question on testing. Last week, obviously, the President explained some ramp-up in testing, but there are still a lot of countries, like Germany and the UK and South Korea, that basically have massive testing, free of charge or for a nominal fee. Why can’t that be done in the United States?
PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, you know, we have eight tests that have been approved by the FDA here. We see that as the gold standard. Whether or not all of those tests would meet that standard is a question for the scientists and medical experts, but I don’t suspect they would.
Our objective is to continue to increase accessibility and decrease costs. And if you look at what we’ve done over the course of time, we’ve quadrupled the size of our testing plan, we’ve cut the cost significantly over the past few months, and this effort to push — to ensure — ensures you’re able to get your tests refunded means 150 million Americans will be able to get free tests.
Q That’s kind of complicated though. Why not just make them free and give them out to — and have them available everywhere?
PSAKI: Should we just send one to every American?
Q Maybe. I’m just asking you — there are other countries —
PSAKI: Then what — then what happens if you — if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?
Q I don’t know. All I know is that other countries seem to be making them available for — in greater quantities, for less money.
PSAKI: Well, I think we share the same objective, which is to make them less expensive and more accessible. Right?
Every country is going to do that differently. And I was just noting that, again, our tests go through the FDA approval process. That’s not the same process that — it doesn’t work that way in every single country. But what we’re working to do here is build on what we’ve done to date and continue to build out our testing capacity, because, Mara, we absolutely recognize that this is a key component of fighting the virus.
The question came in the wake of last week’s announcement that the Biden administration was ramping up rapid testing by having health insurance companies reimburse consumers for the cost of at-home COVID test kits.
When the plan was unveiled on Thursday, it was met with skepticism by public health experts, who expressed concerns that having to pay as much as $20 for a home kit upfront, and then deal with insurers to get their money back would put many people off.
On Monday, Psaki boasted that the eight at-home tests that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration were ‘the gold standard,’ and suggested that by making the kits more accessible, the tests being made available for free abroad possibly fall short of that standard.
She then touted the expansion of at-home testing, saying that thanks to the Biden administration’s reimbursement plan, 150million Americans will get access to free tests.
But Liasson was unconvinced, claiming that the plan was ‘too complicated,’ and asking why the government would not simply give out the tests free of charge to everyone.
Psaki met the NPR correspondent’s suggestion with apparent contempt, saying in response with a sarcastic smirk: ‘should we just send one to every American?’
‘Maybe,’ Liasson shot back, before again trying to point out the example of other countries, only to be cut off by Psaki.
‘Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?’ the White House spokesperson demanded.
Liasson replied: ‘I don’t know. All I know is that other countries seem to be making them available…in greater quantities, for less money.’
The testy briefing room back-and-forth quickly caught the attention of doctors and public health experts, who wasted no time raking Psaki over the coals for what one commenter described as her ‘terrible, flippant, wrong’ response.
‘Actually stunned by this response by the @PressSec @WHCOVIDResponse @WhiteHouse,’ tweeted Rick Bright, CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation. ‘We should remove all access barriers to rapid tests. They’re too expensive, in short supply & adding extra insurance barriers isn’t the answer. Yes, mail them to all Americans.’
Gregg Gonzalves, a Yale University researcher did not mince words, writing in a tweet: ‘this answer was terrible, flippant, wrong. Rapid tests are hard to get, expensive & could be a key intervention in fighting #COVID19. Other countries have figured out better ways to get these tools into the hands of their citizens. Do better.’
Dr Tatiana Powell, an oncologist, argued that nearly two years into the pandemic, at-home tests should be free and available to everyone.
‘If we run out when we send one to every [home], we’re doing something very wrong,’ she tweeted.
Dr Craig Spencer, Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, pointed out that the US government has already spent billions of dollars of vaccines, so ‘tests should be no different.’