How would the U.S. Gov't distribute free masks and at-home tests?
January 13, 2022 1:00 PM   Subscribe

With news that the gov't is considering providing high-quality masks and at-home tests for its citizens, what are the logistics for making this happen?

What would be the most equitable way to ensure that everybody received these items? If the answer is mail (USPS), has this ever been done before in an attempt to reach every citizen with something of this size? Not so interested in discussing the value of the effort, more so the logistics of how they would make this happen and hopefully be done equitably.
posted by blackjack514 to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In the UK, rapid tests are being distributed for free at pharmacies, libraries, other community sites and you can also order them online for delivery to your home. This seems like a good model.

It appears that in the US, they will set up a website that you can order them from and then they will be delivered. There won't be enough for everyone, at least initially.
posted by ssg at 1:12 PM on January 13, 2022

blackjack514: "If the answer is mail (USPS), has this ever been done before in an attempt to reach every citizen with something of this size?"

The census is the first thing that comes to mind.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:14 PM on January 13, 2022 [9 favorites]

It depends on whether they mean making them available to everyone for free (which is what they have done in the UK), or providing them to everyone for free whether they want them or not. The former is quite a lot easier, and the mixed route (ie get them from community places and/or order online) is probably more effective that putting one in the post to everyone. Also, they get used up, so a one off is not really the best approach.
posted by plonkee at 1:35 PM on January 13, 2022

In Massachusetts, the state bought a bunch of tests and gave them to higher-risk cities and towns to distribute. The municipalities have been able to make their own decisions about how to distribute them; in my city and surrounding cities they've been made available at schools, libraries, city/town halls, senior centers, public housing, the Y, stuff like that. But the sites have run out very quickly because there's not enough supply - I think my city got like 20,000 from the state and has a population of around 55,000 (the city is also ordering tests on its own, with favorable pricing negotiated by the state).

I feel like in-person pick-up distribution + on-demand delivery to your home is the way to go, at least for tests, because you've got some people with no need for tests and some with a high need for tests. Maaaaybe send like two tests per person to start with (because we're probably all going to need a test or two at some point) and instructions on how to get more? People's need for tests is not remotely evenly distributed - like, I already have a few tests in my linen closet, and I work from home and live alone (no kids). My neighbor who works in a public-facing job and has three kids elementary school needs a lot more tests than I do (and not just because there are more people in her household).
posted by mskyle at 1:42 PM on January 13, 2022

I heard (on TikTok tbf) that they were looking at extending seasonal contracts with USPS employees to help deliver the kits. It looks like USPS is at least one mode of delivery that has been discussed.

In NC they are piloting a program (6th paragraph down or so)to send out home testing kits to those who request them (and if you click through, free for those who are symptomatic and there’s a cost for those who want them for “peace of mind”
posted by raccoon409 at 1:55 PM on January 13, 2022

Oh, and will a recent ruling that insurance companies need to cover the entire cost of 8 rapid tests per month per person, this means that general population distribution will likely be focused on those who are uninsured.
posted by raccoon409 at 1:57 PM on January 13, 2022

Here is a paper about how mask distribution is done in Taiwan.

Face masks were distributed to 6505 National Health Insurance (NHI) pharmacies or drugstores and district public health centers at the start of the plan(1.0) on February 6, 2020 [8]. Within 7 days, each adult was allowed to buy 2 masks per NHI card at a price of 10 New Taiwan Dollar (NT$) (priced at NT$ 5 each, equivalent to USD 0.17 each), each child was allowed to buy 4 masks per NHI card. Subsequently, each adult was allowed to buy 3 masks per NHI card within 7 days, and an online pre-order system (through the eMask website or the NHI application) was added to the name-based rationing system (2.0) on March 12, 2020. Those who have ordered and paid for the masks can pick them up at convenience stores, drug stores, and supermarkets. This ensures even distribution and is convenient for people, such as office workers and students, who lack the time for on-site purchase [22].

Obviously we don't have a national health service in the US (outside of narrow services available to politicians and military), so anything analogous would need to be done via private pharmacies and care centers.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:04 PM on January 13, 2022

I would hope that they have a website where you can place an order for masks/tests, rather than them just being sent to all homes, period. Because god knows a lot of people are going to throw them out or not use them :/
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:57 PM on January 13, 2022

Washington state is talking about having Amazon deliver ours.
posted by potrzebie at 7:00 PM on January 13, 2022

Best answer: The USPS had a plan for how to implement mask distribution in late 2020, which higher-ups chose not to implement. I presume that could be dusted off.

I'm not aware of anything else as large-scale as this. The census is a little different, just because there is a lot of physical infrastructure other than the USPS to do it (if you don't fill out the census, someone will come knock on your door and ask you questions, so there are I think thousands of census field offices around the country during census season). That's just because the census is legally mandated the count everyone, though — with masks and tests, there's a mich closer to liner tradeoff between the number of people who get them and the benefit, so it might not be considered"worth it" to try very hard to reach the relatively small number of people not served by the USPS. (This is unfortunate, since those people are overwhelming likely to be marginalized, but I suspect this is how most politicians will see it)
posted by wesleyac at 8:41 PM on January 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

My dad was a rural letter carrier with USPS for almost 30 years. USPS goes, literally, everywhere in the country. It's a shame that the service has been hacked at by political lunatics for so long (I mean it's literally provided for in the Constitution) because all people who've grown up in rural America are familiar with how much of a lifeline the mailbox is.

I'm living in the UK at the moment and just about every day I order my free box of 7 rapid tests, so I've got a nice stockpile. The boxes are slim and fit through a mail slot in the door. It takes less than 24 hours for them to arrive via Royal Mail, which is the USPS equivalent. Masks and test kits are so easy to distribute because they're as near to trivially bulky/heavy as it gets. As wesleyac points out, USPS has a plan on file for the finer details of distribution, so it certainly seems like a government commitment carried out by a pervasive government agency is a natural approach to address the logistics.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:01 AM on January 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Colorado just sends 2 boxes of Binax tests (4 each) to us in the mail for free when we request them. It's pretty straightforward, but the process has gotten a little slower with Omicron. I think I put in another request a week ago and am still waiting, but we still have some in reserve.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:24 AM on January 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Government's website to order free tests to ship via USPS. Set to go live on the 19th. 4 free tests per household. Not sure how often you can request 4 each time.
posted by gloturtle at 1:26 PM on January 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

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