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Analysis: Can the Postal Service deliver on at-home COVID tests?

Amid nationwide pandemic concerns, agency has its own problems

The White House has tabbed the Postal Service for deliveries of millions of at-home COVID-19 tests (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Nothing ever really comes for free. “Free” food samples, credit appraisals, tarot card readings –– all of them incur costs somewhere down the line.

That includes COVID-19 tests. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the U.S. government had launched a website to deliver free at-home COVID-19 rapid antigen tests via the U.S. Postal Service. But facing slowing delivery speeds and tens of thousands of omicron-infected workers, can the agency deliver?

According to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the answer is a resounding yes.

“The 650,000 women and men of the United States Postal Service are ready to deliver and proud to play a critical role in supporting the health needs of the American public. We have been working closely with the Administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches,” DeJoy stated in an email to Modern Shipper.

But even the Biden administration has acknowledged that the tests may not arrive with the speed Postal Service customers are used to. According to the White House, applicants shouldn’t expect to see their tests delivered for seven to 12 days –– and not until late January –– despite the tests being sent via the agency’s First-Class Package Service, which has a listed ship time of one to five business days.

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Some experts believe that just isn’t fast enough.

“If [customers] wait until they have an issue, by the time the tests arrive, the optimal time for testing may well have passed,” William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, told CNN. “If you’ve been exposed and you don’t have the tests available, you’ll have to find testing resources elsewhere.”

Schaffner recommends that interested customers apply for tests before they need them, but that could compound issues for the Postal Service. The White House is limiting orders to a maximum of four tests per residence, but if everyone is ordering tests before they’re necessary, the agency could soon be overwhelmed.

However, the agency is taking pains to ensure that tests are delivered quickly and smoothly. A Postal Service spokesman told Modern Shipper that the service accepted over 13.2 billion parcels over the holidays with an average delivery time under three days, and it will implement the same strategies it used during peak season to ensure on-time deliveries.

Those include an expansion of its facilities, including 43 new centers that will pack and ship tests around the country, an investment in new processing equipment and additional staffing in the form of 7,000 temporary workers.

But will 7,000 be enough? According to the American Postal Workers Union, more than 19,200 Postal Service workers were either sick or quarantining as of Tuesday. That’s knocking on the door of the agency’s pandemic high about a year ago, and it’s more than double the number the union reported two weeks ago.

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Already, staffing shortages are impacting the Postal Service’s ability to deliver mail. Reports of spotty delivery owing to a thinning workforce are springing up from Vermont to Ohio, with many residents claiming delays of longer than a week. Now, the agency will have to deliver hundreds of millions of COVID-19 tests, too.

Numbers from the Postal Service on deliveries in the first week of January paint a slightly rosier picture, however. According to a press release last week, the agency posted a 90% on-time rate for first-class mail during the period from Jan. 1 to Jan. 7, and the average time to deliver a piece of mail during that stretch was just 2.6 days.

“Consistent with the rest of the shipping industry, the organization experienced some minor delays in both ground and air transportation during the week of January 1-7,” the release stated. “The Postal Service continues to address impacts to last mile delivery due to availability challenges due to COVID-19 cases and inclement weather events including winter storms on the East Coast, Midwest and West Coast.”

In the early days of the new White House program, one hiccup has already presented itself. Some applicants who live in apartments or other shared living situations say they were told they couldn’t order tests because someone else living at their address already had.

“The Postal Service is seeing very limited cases of addresses that are not registered as multi-unit buildings which could lead to COVID test kit ordering difficulties. This is occurring in a small percentage of orders,” a spokesperson for the Postal Service told 12 News in Rhode Island.

For the time being, the Postal Service recommends filing a service request on its website or contacting its help desk. But the organization will need to iron out that issue –– and others –– before Americans can truly capitalize on the White House’s latest pandemic initiative.

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.