You Shouldn’t Have to Pay $24 for a 2-Pack of At-Home Covid Tests

Getting tested for Covid is a social good. It only makes sense for governments to help pay for it.

James Surowiecki
GEN
Published in
4 min readDec 30, 2021

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Jwslubbock for Wikimedia Commons

The arrival of Omicron in the U.S. has meant that at-home rapid tests have become nearly as hard to find as a PS5. The tests sell out online at places like Walmart (which sells Abbott’s Binax test at the lowest price, $14 for a box of two, while most places charge $24) almost as soon as they’re in stock, and people who were smart enough to stock up before the Omicron rush now find themselves making complicated calculations about whether a given get-together is “test-worthy.”

Local governments are trying to step up to help fill the shortfall, since the Biden administration’s plan to distribute 500 million free rapid tests (which it announced last week) has yet to be put in place. Washington D.C. is distributing tests daily at local libraries. Colorado will send Binax tests to people’s home upon request. And Connecticut was supposed to begin distributing 3 million tests (most of which will go to schools) today, though that’s now been delayed by supply shortages. These programs are accomplishing two things — they’re giving people access to tests that are otherwise hard to find, and they’re making normally pricey tests available for free.

These are welcome (if belated) developments, because they help mitigate the basic challenge we face when it comes to testing, particularly since most people have been vaccinated: left to their own devices, people are always going to test less than is socially optimal. So what you want to do is make testing as simple, painless, and cheap as possible.

The reason for this is simple, although it’s often overlooked: the main beneficiary when someone gets tested is not the person herself, but rather all the people she might infect if it turns out she has Covid. To be sure, for older people or immunocompromised people, knowing you have Covid is valuable, because it makes it more likely you’ll get treated early (and Covid treatments are often most effective when administered early). But for most vaccinated people, Covid is unlikely to be any worse than the flu. And for them, the most important thing about knowing you have Covid is that it tells you not…

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James Surowiecki
GEN
Writer for

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.