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White House launches hotline for free Covid tests as omicron drives demand

The administration said it will prioritize orders from communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is launching a phone line Friday for people to order free Covid-19 tests, a senior White House policy adviser said, expanding availability to people who may not have internet access.

The hotline is scheduled to go live at 8 a.m. ET, and households can call 800-232-0233 to request up to four free tests. It will complement the federally run COVIDtests.gov website, which launched Tuesday and is meant to provide better access to testing for communities that have had higher coronavirus infection rates than the rest of the country.

“We’ve just seen the disproportionate impact on certain communities,” Dr. Cameron Webb, who advises President Joe Biden’s Covid response team on equity, said in an interview. “The harder-hit communities have borne the brunt and most difficult aspects of this pandemic.”

The phone line will offer services in English, Spanish and 150 other languages. Orders can be placed from 8 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

The White House plans to use the Social Vulnerability Index, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses, to prioritize ZIP codes with the most cases, hospitalizations and deaths. It will allocate 20 percent of the tests for those populations.

“We want to make sure those communities are, instead of being the afterthought, first in line in so many ways,” Webb said. “That’s taking steps in the right direction toward equity.”

The additional method to request kits supplements the Biden administration’s website for people to place orders online. Those tests are expected to ship seven to 12 days after requests are received.

As they do on the website, people who place orders by phone will need to provide their names and home addresses. No credit card or health insurance is required.

The highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus has revealed major and persistent challenges in testing capacity for the administration, and Biden conceded at a news conference Wednesday that the administration has fallen short on this aspect. “Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now,” he said.

Overall, the administration aims to provide 1 billion free tests.

“We’re definitely keeping our eyes open for challenges as they arise,” Webb said. “We want to be quick to adapt and to meet people’s needs, because it’s a rapidly evolving situation all over the country, and we want to make sure we can be nimble.”