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The U.S. government will send up to 4 free COVID tests to anyone who requests them

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is again providing free, at-home rapid COVID tests to anybody who asks for them. Starting today, all households can order four of these tests by going to a website - covidtests.gov. Pretty straightforward. We've called Assistant Secretary Dawn O'Connell, who leads the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services. Assistant Secretary O'Connell, welcome.

DAWN O'CONNELL: Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: Why act now?

O'CONNELL: Well, as we head into the fall and winter, if past is prologue, we've always seen cases increase as folks move indoors and start gathering with their loved ones in indoor settings. So we think it's really important that this tool be made available to folks for free as we head into this fall and winter season.

INSKEEP: I want to tell you a story about something that happened in my family, and you can respond any way that you want. There seemed to be an increase in COVID cases in the last couple of months. Someone in my family was feeling sick, and so we tested them. They tested positive. They immediately isolated in one room in the house, and nobody else in our family got sick. It turned out not to be that big a deal.

O'CONNELL: Well, that's one of the reasons why testing is so important. If you had not been able to test and known that your family member needed to isolate, then it's possible that it would have spread throughout your household. So that's one of the reasons why we think it's important that American families are able to order these four free tests shipped directly to their homes this fall and winter season.

INSKEEP: And I also noticed that tests, which we paid for over the summer, they're not, like, super cheap if you do pay for them, right?

O'CONNELL: And these four free tests will help supplement whatever you're able to purchase in the retail setting.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does the decision to do this at this point say about the seriousness of the winter that's ahead?

O'CONNELL: Well, COVID is still with us. And, you know, we're seeing that with a small increase in cases we saw towards the end of the summer. So we're continuing to prepare to make sure that we make these tools available to the American people so they can protect themselves and their loved ones. We know folks are going to be gathering indoors in the coming months, likely with family members who may be elderly or younger or with some immunocompromised risk. So we think being able to protect yourself and your loved ones by knowing whether you have COVID is going to be really important for these coming months.

INSKEEP: You know, let me ask you about another aspect of this. When we had this family experience over the summer, of course, we wanted to test everybody else in the family, see if they were OK. So we were, like, digging around in a drawer for old COVID tests and then trying to figure out what is the expiration date? Is there even an expiration date on this thing? Is this test any good? What would you tell people to do with their older COVID tests that they bought last year and 2021 in this situation?

O'CONNELL: Well, many of the COVID tests have been shelf life extended by the FDA. So it's really important to go to FDA's website and check the expiration for your particular test. But many of them have been extended. You know, when the tests were first manufactured, these were, you know, new in the case of first impression. And the FDA made a safe assumption about how long they would last. And now they've seen that they've - that they actually last longer than initially thought. So really important to go to FDA's website and check what - how long your test is good for.

INSKEEP: So my 2-year-old test or whatever might be OK depending on what I find when I check.

O'CONNELL: Well we are seeing that some last longer than we initially thought. Strongly encourage going to FDA's website to check your particular test.

INSKEEP: OK. Dawn O'Connell is assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS. Thanks so much.

O'CONNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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