While many Americans scramble to track down increasingly scarce rapid at-home coronavirus tests, they are abundant for white-collar employees of some of the country’s biggest companies.
Workers at corporate giants such as Google and JPMorgan Chase can request tests be sent to them free. At Google, employees can receive as many as 20 tests per month, even if they're not going into the office. Delta Air Lines allows its flight staff and corporate employees to order sets of six antigen tests every three weeks.
Sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and the National Football League provide frequent testing to players to ensure they can travel and play for their teams. Other companies such as Microsoft and Mastercard offer a combination of at-home and in-person testing.
Many companies, including Wells Fargo and American Airlines, also offer on-site testing for employees who must interact with customers in person, helping workers and the public stay safe while increasing demand for tests.
The situation is the latest manifestation of the United States’ uneven response to the pandemic. Many Americans, including people who need rapid testing to attend work or school in person, are facing empty pharmacy shelves and “no inventory” banners on e-commerce sites. But hundreds of thousands of accurate at-home testing solutions are held by wealthy companies with the money and motivation to provide them to their workforces — whether employees work in the office or not. As the omicron variant of the coronavirus leads to record-high case numbers — with the vaccinated among them — the lack of accessible testing is further highlighting the divide.
"Our entire pandemic response has been inequitable, and it's our capitalist economy. It's so inequitable that Google gets to give tests to the rich people, and the poor people don't [get tests]," said Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who studies infectious diseases. "The private schools get them, and the public schools don't. Our entire response has been one of inequity."
President Joe Biden in December announced that his administration would purchase 500 million rapid coronavirus test kits to distribute to households across the country. Individuals will be able to request the kits on a government website, and the U.S. Postal Service is preparing to start shipping them within the next two weeks, according to two people involved with the agency’s plans.
Federal regulators will also require health insurance providers to cover the cost of some coronavirus test kits, either by defraying the cost upfront or reimbursing patients after tests are purchased.
Experts have called for more resources and focus on testing since the start of the pandemic. Many companies are bridging the gap left by governments as they try to get tests to their employees, and some are buying up tests for customer-facing employees such as bank tellers and flight attendants so they can do their jobs safely.
"Companies are stepping in, and from a company's perspective, it probably makes a lot of sense," said Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at the health policy group Kaiser Family Foundation. "That's great for those employees. It says that there's a market failure here and the government hasn't addressed it yet. And also, it means that there's still limited supply and we're still rationing these tests. And now they're just taking a bunch of tests out of that pool."
A Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss test procurements, said the White House does not see "any particular buyers as a cause of constraints" on test supplies, and that officials are encouraged by new manufacturers coming online to produce more test kits.
In the meantime, though, the testing shortage persists, and even within companies there are differences in access to testing. Full-time Google employees, many of whom have worked from home during the pandemic, can request high-end molecular tests from Cue, the same company that does testing for the NBA. A three-pack of Cue tests and the cartridge needed to analyze them costs $474 on the firm's website.
Google employees can order up to 20 a month, according to one worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policies. But Google's contractors, which make up about half its workforce, don't have access to the Cue tests. Instead, Google provides PCR tests that are taken at home and then mailed into a testing site for analysis. Employees and contractors can also get tested at their work sites.
The tests are extremely helpful at a time when schools are reopening and people are having many close calls with the virus. Another Google employee who also spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were using their free tests from the company to test their children so they could attend day care, which wasn't offering testing.
"We have many at-home and in-person viral testing options available free to our employees and members of our extended workforce, including temps and vendors," Google spokesman José Castañeda said. "We're committed to doing our part to keep our workplaces and communities as safe as possible."
JPMorgan Chase provides rapid tests and PCR tests for workers free, either mailed to employees at home or provided in person at the office. Employees who aren't vaccinated are required to be tested twice a week, said spokesman Michael Fusco. Insurance company TIAA provides at-home coronavirus tests through health-care provider Premise Health to all employees, whether or not they come into the office.
Mastercard supplies at-home or on-site tests to workers who need to come into the office or meet with a customer, spokesperson Seth Eisen said.
Microsoft offers free tests at many of its offices, "where available and as supply allows," said spokeswoman Rebecca Buttle Peri. She declined to say whether Microsoft mails tests to employees' homes.
Delta allows all of its employees, those who work with customers and those who do not, to order tests. "As supplies remain in high demand across the country, employees are encouraged to work with their leader to pick up testing supplies at their work location, one at a time as needed," said spokeswoman Emily Cashdan. "Employees can also order sets of six rapid antigen tests once every 21 days — equating to two tests per week."
At an Amazon warehouse complex in Staten Island, employees had access to testing up until July, when the company discontinued the program, said Christian Smalls, a former Amazon worker who is leading an effort to unionize employees at the site.
A spokesperson for Amazon did not return a request for comment. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Without the company-provided tests, employees are scrambling to find tests on their own as case numbers climb in New York and many workers get sick.
"We've been sharing different testing locations in our communities. A lot of us have been getting tested at local churches or pop-up testing spots," Smalls said. "That's just how we have to do it, because Amazon is not testing."
Experts have said throughout the pandemic that the United States needed to invest much more in testing. A familiar pattern has played out several times as new waves of the virus rise and fall. Higher case numbers lead to more people seeking tests as they, their family members and colleagues fall ill. Lines outside government and private testing sites stretch for blocks. Testing companies increase production. Then, when cases subside, testing sites shut down and suppliers stop making tests, leading to another crunch the next time infections surge. By buying up their own supply, or striking deals with testing providers directly, companies can help their employees avoid that cycle.
The White House has acknowledged the testing shortfalls. In early December, Biden said rapid tests were a key part of his plan to fight the pandemic and vowed to make them more accessible. But more than a month later, demand for tests is still far outstripping supply.
“I know this remains frustrating — believe me, it’s frustrating to me — but we’re making improvements,” Biden said last week before a meeting with his coronavirus advisers.