White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended President Biden on Thursday after he expressed regret over his slow testing response to a COVID-19 surge — with Psaki claiming people weren’t rushing for tests during the 2020 holiday season, despite New Yorkers waiting in long lines last year.
Biden said in an ABC News interview Wednesday that he should have thought more quickly of a plan to mass-distribute 500 million at-home rapid tests, which won’t start happening until January despite record numbers of new infections caused by the Omicron variant.
“The answer is, yeah, I wish I had thought about ordering a half a billion [tests] two months ago, before COVID hit here,” Biden told ABC’s David Muir as FEMA rushed to set up testing sites in New York City and other areas slammed by massive demand.
During Thursday’s White House briefing, a reporter asked Psaki: “What we’ve heard from some viewers is that they feel that we’re back here again because last year, the holidays, people were rushing to get tests and so for them, this could be predictable because so many people are trying to gather. And the question is, again, why wasn’t there some foresight?”
“I don’t think last Christmas people were rushing to get tests, because I don’t think there were — maybe there was one, I’m not sure — over-the-counter approved test last Christmas,” Psaki responded.
“Last Christmas there were not vaccines available to the country, right?” she added. “And what the CDC was advising was that people should not even gather with their family members, certainly they shouldn’t travel. Now we’re at the point where 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated.”
Testing lines were so long in New York City last year around Thanksgiving and Christmas that some people hired others to stand in line for up to six hours. The FDA had approved several at-home tests at the time, but they were not widely available, so people generally got rapid tests at local centers.
This year, many retail locations have sold out of at-home tests and lines are again long at testing centers in New York and elsewhere.
Distribution of Pfizer’s vaccine began 11 days before Christmas 2020, but the Omicron variant has dramatically impacted vaccine efficacy, leading to common “breakthrough” infections even among people with three vaccine shots.
Psaki repeatedly fended off reporters’ attempts to follow up on Biden’s expression of regret over the flat-footed federal testing response.
Reuters reporter Alex Alper asked: “We all knew variants were on the rise, the Christmas holiday travel season was coming. Why didn’t anyone think of it in advance?”
Psaki pointed out that Biden in September and October announced the government would spend $3 billion to buy roughly 500 million tests for distribution.
“We did take steps to rapidly increase our testing capacity as of the summer. And I would just go back to kind of the chain of events here to remind people of — and we forget, June was a long time ago — but before the Delta variant was on the rise, there was not a demand for testing in this country,” Psaki said.
“Then Delta obviously increased the demand. We also had to take steps as a federal government to build up the market because the market wasn’t there to meet if the demand rose,” she added. “What the president did with the Defense Production Act is to do exactly that, investing $3 billion several months ago to make sure we were building up the market, to make sure we had the capacity.”
CNN reporter Jeremy Diamond followed up, asking: “It is the president who said himself that he wishes he had thought about this idea two months ago and public health experts have been saying for months, including two months ago, that there was not enough testing supplies. So why did nobody think of this, or did the president miss the mark here?”
“I think what I just conveyed to Alex, but I’m happy to reiterate to you, is that the president and the team did take steps to increase capacity,” Psaki insisted. “Of course, if there would have been 500 million tests and we would have known that there were these, you know, very transmissible variants, that’s one thing. But the president knew that we needed to increase testing capacity. That’s why he used the Defense Production Act to expand the supply of that home test. Without that we wouldn’t have the supply in the market.”
The press secretary added that details are still being developed for plans to mass-distribute the 500 million free at-home rapid tests, which were previewed to reporters on Monday and formally announced on Tuesday. It’s not yet clear how many tests each household will be allowed to request, how quickly they will be mailed or when a website will be launched.
In mid-January, a previously announced Biden rule will take effect requiring private insurance companies to reimburse policyholders for rapid tests that they buy themselves. Another 50 million rapid tests are in the process of being shipped by the federal government to local clinics for free distribution.