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You can order free COVID tests from the government again

In this photo illustration, free iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid tests from the federal government sit on a U.S. Postal Service envelope after being delivered on Feb. 4, 2022.
Justin Sullivan
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Getty Images
In this photo illustration, free iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid tests from the federal government sit on a U.S. Postal Service envelope after being delivered on Feb. 4, 2022.

Americans can order more free at-home COVID-19 tests from the U.S. government at COVIDtests.gov to be shipped to their homes, the White House said on Monday.

Each household can order a total of eight tests. So if you ordered four in January, when the program launched, you're eligible to order a second batch of four more.

President Biden announced the move last week in his State of the Union address. On Monday, the White House released a video telling people the website was ready to go again. "Get your free tests today," Biden said, urging people to have them on hand "so we're prepared no matter what COVID-19 brings."

More than half of U.S. households ordered tests in January and February. "The way that we set this up was to make sure that every household who wanted these tests could get them before we made a second round available," White House testing coordinator Tom Inglesby told NPR.

Orders should move faster this time

In January, some tests didn't ship within the seven- to 12-day window that had been promised because the administration was waiting for manufacturers to make more tests.

This time, test scarcity is not a problem.

"As we open up this second round, we are going to be shipping immediately," Inglesby said. "We have a fairly substantial stock of new tests ready to be shipped, so we expect orders to be delivered quickly."

The idea is to have them on hand for when you need them

The program began when cases were surging with the omicron variant of the coronavirus and tests were hard to find in stores. So Biden committed the government to buy 1 billion tests to distribute.

COVID-19 case numbers have dropped significantly since January. The Biden administration is turning to the new phase of its response, which emphasizes getting back to normal while being ready for the possibility that a new variant could emerge and cause case numbers to spike once again.

The idea is that these tests can be used if someone develops symptoms, has a close exposure to someone with COVID-19 or wants to spend time indoors with someone who would be at high risk if they were to catch the coronavirus.

But Inglesby said there's another reason the federal government is purchasing all these tests: "to keep the testing infrastructure strong."

The government wants to keep the testing industry viable

The last time COVID-19 case numbers ebbed — in the spring and early summer of 2021 — the nascent home-testing industry saw demand dry up, and production slowed. But then when case numbers increased with the delta and omicron waves, there weren't nearly enough tests to meet demand.

Now, the Biden administration plans to add at-home coronavirus tests into the national strategic stockpile so they can be sent out rapidly in case of a future surge.

The White House has requested $22.5 billion in additional funding from Congress, part of which would go to purchasing rapid tests, both to keep the industry viable and to fill the nation's strategic reserves.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.