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The White House will buy and distribute 500 million rapid Covid-19 tests for free beginning in January, according to Biden administration officials. 

The move comes amid a wave of new cases, a large majority of which stem from the Omicron variant of the virus that causes Covid. Health officials across the country reported nearly 238,000 cases on Monday, nearing the totals recorded during the deadly surge in August and September. 

The first shipment of tests will arrive at some point in January, the White House said. Americans will be able to request that rapid tests be shipped to their home, free of charge, via a new government website. The new policy of handing out free tests mirrors that of many other wealthy nations, like Germany and the United Kingdom. Few countries, however, have taken the step of mailing tests to individual homes, instead requiring that people request the kits at a pharmacy, doctor’s office, or testing site.

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Biden administration officials had scoffed at the idea of sending free rapid tests to Americans as recently as two weeks ago. On Dec. 6, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, mockingly asked reporters: “Should we just send one to every American?”  

Previously, the White House’s plan to increase the supply of rapid diagnostics had relied largely on Americans with insurance paying for the test kits out of pocket, then submitting reimbursement claims to their insurer. 

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The administration also announced it would stand up new federal testing sites, beginning in New York City, where new Covid cases are at an all-time high. 

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