Orders of free at-home COVID-19 tests varied widely by state

On September 2, 2022, the federal government stopped taking orders for free at-home COVID-19 tests. The distribution program, which launched during the first Omicron surge in early 2022, allowed households to order free tests up to three times, with either four or eight tests in each order.

The day this program ended, I sent a public records request to the federal government asking for data on how many tests were distributed. I filed it through MuckRock’s portal, so both the original request and my correspondence with the U.S. Postal Service’s records office are publicly available.

Last week, the USPS fulfilled my request. While I’d requested data by state, county, and/or ZIP code, the agency only sent over at-home test orders and distribution numbers by state. According to the formal response letter they sent, more granular data would (somehow) count as “commercial information” and is therefore exempt from FOIA.

Now, obviously, I think that far more data on the test distribution program should be publicly available. As I wrote back in January when the program started, in order to truly evaluate the success of this program, we need test distribution numbers by more specific geographies and demographic groups.

Still, the state-by-state data are better than nothing. With these data, we can see that states with the highest volume of at-home test orders fall on the East and West coasts, with people living in the South and Midwest less likely to use the program.

(The population data that I used to calculate these per capita rates are from the HHS Community Profile Report.)

With the data from my FOIA request, we can see that states with higher vaccination rates also had more people taking advantage of the free COVID-19 test program. States like Vermont and Hawaii rank high up for both metrics, while states like North Dakota and Wyoming are on the lower end for both.

At the same time, many of the states where fewer people ordered the free tests are also states that saw higher COVID-19 death rates in 2022. In Mississippi, for example, about 433 people died of COVID-19 for every 100,000 residents since the year started—the highest death rate of any state. But people in the state ordered free tests at a rate under 0.3 per capita.

These charts basically confirm what many public health experts suspected about the free COVID-19 test program: Americans who already were more protected against COVID-19 (thanks to vaccination) were most likely to order tests. Just as we’re seeing now with the Omicron-specific booster shots, a valuable public health measure went under-utilized here.

I invite other journalists to report on these data; if you do, please link back to my original FOIA request on MuckRock!

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