Jan 18, 2022 - Podcasts

At-home COVID tests from the federal government

Starting tomorrow, Americans will be able to order free rapid at-home COVID tests online at covidtests.gov. What should we expect from the Biden administration's latest testing effort?

  • Plus, the big push to ban books.
  • And, retailers turn to tech to solve the worker shortage.

Guests: Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News and host of the "What the Health?" podcast; and Axios' Russell Contreras and Erica Pandey.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Sabeena Singhani and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Editor's note: The website to request free, at-home rapid COVID-19 tests from the government launched early, on Tuesday, and is now accepting orders.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, January 18th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: the big push to ban books. Plus, retailers turn to tech to solve the worker shortage.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: free at-home COVID tests from the federal government.

Starting tomorrow, Wednesday, Americans will be able to order free rapid at-home COVID tests online, at covidtests.gov. What should we expect from the Biden administration's latest testing effort? Here to help us to answer that question is Julie Rovner, Chief Washington Correspondent at Kaiser Health News and host of the What the Health podcast. Hi, Julie.


NIALA: First, what are the basics of how this is going to work?

JULIE: The basics are there will be a website, there already is a website that you can go to that's called covidtests, plural, dot gov. Uh, and right now it says that starting Wednesday, you can order tests. So you'll be able to order up to four tests, not four test kits, which usually come two to a kit, but a total of four tests. They will arrive via U.S. mail. So they're suggesting it will take seven to 12 days. But this is only a small piece of the administration's effort to help people get their hands on tests.

NIALA: Okay, so everyone can get four tests per address. Do we know how often?

JULIE: No, it may just be four tests. We do know, however, that people who have private insurance are going to get tests that way, can get eight tests per family member per month. If they don't have health insurance, they can go to community health centers. A lot of local clinics are making tests available. The Biden administration is sending millions, hundreds of millions of tests, to schools. So this is part of a much broader effort to kind of flood the market with tests as long as people need them. But the biggest problem is that they have not caught up with the manufacturing so there is still a shortage of tests. And it is still hard to get them, and private insurers who are as of Saturday, this last Saturday, required to reimburse those tests, don't really have systems set up yet. So for a while it's going to be, you know, collect your receipts and send them in by mail or fax them. If you have access to a fax machine.

NIALA: Oh boy. Okay. So Julie, I think the million dollar question here is: Is this going to be enough tests?

JULIE: Eventually it's going to be enough tests. The concern is by the time it's enough tests, this Omicron wave will likely be receding, if not over. But it's probably worth it to create these systems in case there's another wave of another variant, which is entirely possible. You know, these rapid antigen tests are pretty accurate, but only if you take them fairly frequently. So getting four tests, period, isn't really gonna help. Getting eight tests a month per person, that's pretty much two tests a week. That's more likely what we're going to need for as long as this surge goes on.

NIALA: Julie, The White House said part of this is also to prioritize communities that have been the hardest hit. How are they going to do that?

JULIE: It didn't say, but I assume they're going to do that by zip code. When these requests start going into covidtests.gov, they're going to send them out first to the zip codes that have been either hardest hit or are lower income, and people either might not have insurance or might have more trouble, you know, paying up front and getting reimbursed. Eventually, they are assuming, hoping, and have incentivized, private insurers to set up systems with, you know, preferred pharmacies, that you would go and you wouldn't pay anything. That hasn't happened yet for most of the insurers. The hope is that soon people will be able to go and get tests just with their insurance card.

NIALA: Julie Rovner is Kaiser Health News’ Chief Washington Correspondent. Thanks, Julie.

JULIE: Thank you.

NIALA: In 15 seconds: a new wave of pressure to ban certain books in public schools.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

The American Library Association says 2021 was an unprecedented year for the number of requests to ban books, with school districts across the country facing pressure, especially from conservative groups, to ban books about LGBTQ issues and people of color.

Joining me to explain what's going on is Axios’ justice and race reporter Russ Contreras.

Russ, what kind of books are being requested to be banned?

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: Well, there are many types of books that are being banned. A lot of them deal with LGBTQ issues, but also books about people of color, dealing with racism, dealing with sexual violence, dealing with the every day aspects of life from marginalized communities. It’s raising eyebrows from certain groups who say these books are challenging the way we look at American life and therefore it needs to be challenged.

NIALA: Russ, I feel like people have been trying to ban books since books were created. What is different now?

RUSS: Well, people from the American Library Association say they've never seen something like this. Parents go to school board meetings and have a whole list of books. One Texas lawmaker has asked libraries to review 850 books. And so the movement to go after these books, we've never seen it like this. We may have seen the challenge of Huckleberry Finn here, a challenge of 1984 there, but nothing where we've seen a whole list of books being challenged.

NIALA: Russ, while the majority of these requests are coming from conservative parents, are we also seeing pressure from progressive quarters to ban literature they think is problematic?

RUSS: You know, we've seen in the past years, progressive activists have tried to attack books that they say are problematic or say are dated about racism. I'm thinking of Harper Lee's ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, I'm thinking of John Steinbeck's ‘Of Mice and Men’. And what progressive say, is there's outdated language, there's white saviorism in these books. But the other movement on the other side from conservatives, if they go after books, like ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas and ‘Out of Darkness’ by Ashley Hope Perez, there was overwhelmingly objections to books dealing with racism than those books from progressive talking about outdated racist language.

NIALA: Russ, this sounds like this is yet another contentious issue on a school board meeting agenda, like mask mandates or vaccines. Are we also then seeing a backlash and parents who are trying to counter people who want to ban books?

RUSS: Yes, right now even librarians have started a campaign to highlight attempts to ban books and why they believe there should be a free access to books. Yes, have notes about age appropriateness and so forth, but there should not be attempts to take these books out of circulation and away from students' hands.

NIALA: Axios’ justice and race reporter Russ Contreras. Thanks Russ.

RUSS: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: As businesses try to stay open with fewer and fewer workers, some retailers are turning to tech for cashierless checkout solutions. Axios’ Erica Pandey is here with us with literally what's in store for retail businesses. Hey, Erica.


NIALA: So I think a lot of us have been to the grocery store and seen the cashierless checkout line. Is that happening in a lot more places now?

ERICA: Yeah. I mean, places that weren't trying cashierless before, because they had no reason to, are doing it now. So I'm thinking of Kohl's, I'm thinking of DSW…Retailers are realizing that this is a way to save labor and ultimately save cost.

NIALA: You also have examples in your reporting of people who are using the honor system in stores, because they don't have enough cashiers?

ERICA: Yes, my local bookstore has gone with the honor system because they want to stay open but they don’t have the money to staff it. So there's a sign there that says you walk in, you pick a book, you calculate the tax by yourself, and then you Venmo the bookstore. And they told me it's been working pretty well. It's been a good exercise in trust in Hoboken, where I live. Obviously that's not going to work in every neighborhood.

NIALA: How do we see this long-term change affecting the industry?

ERICA: So we could just be moving towards a retail industry that employs fewer people. And, you know, like you could see it going into hotels: a robot receptionist. So, you know, the possibilities are really endless with automation.

NIALA: Axios’ business reporter, Erica Pandey - who is going to be filling in for me actually - hosting the podcast for the rest of the week. Thanks, Erica!

ERICA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: One last thing before we go today: I hope you had a three-day weekend like our pod team did. Well calls for a permanent four-day work week are growing - A group of businesses in the UK is launching a 6-month pilot of a 4 day work week starting this June. And here in the US, California Democrat Mark Takano proposed legislation last summer that would reduce the standard work week from 40 to 32 hours. Studies have shown that shorter work weeks actually create better productivity, lower medical costs for employers and increased happiness. We’ll put some links in our show notes for you so you can show your boss.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening, and stay safe!

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