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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The lightning-quick spread of the Omicron variant has finally made clear the value of cheap and accessible rapid at-home COVID tests.

Why it matters: Omicron moves fast, and rapid tests that can prove infectiousness instantly, rather than PCR lab tests that can take days to get results, can help to stem the spread.

  • But new U.S. policies to provide more tests for free are likely too little, too late to make a meaningful dent in this wave.

Driving the news: Yesterday, President Biden announced his administration would purchase 500 million rapid tests this winter and make them available for Americans to order for free, with the first shipment arriving in January.

  • The White House will also establish new testing sites and invoke the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more diagnostics.

The big picture: While more tests will help — as will providing them free of charge — the U.S. is still hamstrung by months of neglecting the importance of rapid tests and by the FDA's sluggish moves to approve more of them.

  • "Rapid tests are one of the most powerful tools that have not really been utilized in a powerful way in this pandemic," Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who is now the chief science officer of the home testing company eMed, said in a press event yesterday.
  • But making at-home tests free won't help much if supplies remain scarce, and 500 million won't go far if Americans are expected to use tests whenever they gather for the foreseeable future.

The bottom line: Rapid tests aren't a panacea — they'll miss some cases, and countries like the U.K. and Germany that have rolled them out in far larger numbers haven't fully escaped Omicron.

  • But they sure would be nice to have now.

Go deeper

Jan 15, 2022 - Health

Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron

Three COVID-19 testing companies place testing locations outside Grand Central Terminal on Jan. 14 in New York City. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Experts are warning that subsequent COVID-19 variants are likely to come after Omicron, AP reports.

Why it matters: The warnings come as there's no guarantee that subsequent variants "will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them," underscoring the need for widespread vaccination, AP writes.

Minneapolis and St. Paul to require vaccine or test for indoor dining

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

New vaccine-or-test requirements for indoor dining and drinking in Minneapolis and St. Paul take effect Wednesday.

The big picture: A growing number of major cities, including Boston, Chicago and New York, have instituted similar requirements in an effort to protect public health.

Yes, but: Questions about enforcement, logistics and effectiveness of the temporary measures here remain.

Updated 5 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.

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