The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has begun handing out free rapid at-home COVID-19 test kits to international travelers after clearing customs at airports across the U.S., as part of a brand new program quietly rolled out this week to increase post-travel testing supplies and monitoring.
The new grab-and-go testing program rolled out starting this week in advance of the holiday travel season, a CDC spokesperson confirmed to Thrifty Traveler on Wednesday. To start, the free take-home tests are available at just four major international airports: Chicago-O'Hare (ORD), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Miami (MIA), and Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). It will roll out to four more yet-to-be-announced airports “soon,” according to a CDC spokesperson.
“This initiative will quickly increase access to 3- to 5-day post-arrival COVID-19 testing for international travelers arriving in the United States,” the CDC said in a statement. “CDC will hand out as many kits as possible to international travelers arriving from any country.”
At Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) earlier this week, CDC staff members were handing out free test kits as travelers cleared customs and immigration, just before leaving the secure area of the airport. The kits are from Ellume, which typically retail for roughly $25. Taking a free test home was optional.
The CDC did not respond to questions about the funding source for these tests for travelers nor how long they'll be made available free for international arrivals.
But it comes soon after President Joe Biden's administration sharpened its focus on increasing COVID-19 testing as the pandemic drags on, including additional investments in rapid test supplies and a controversial plan that allows Americans with private insurance to get reimbursed for the cost of their tests.
It also comes amid major changes to international travel.
In response to the rise of the Omicron variant, the Biden administration imposed a travel ban on foreign arrivals from several countries in southern Africa late last month. This month, the White House tightened the testing requirements for international travel: Now, all travelers must get a negative COVID-19 test no more than one day before flying to the U.S. – including fully vaccinated Americans returning home.
With concern surrounding the Omicron running high, the CDC increased surveillance with additional testing measures at the nation's four largest airports: Atlanta (ATL), New York City (JFK), Newark (EWR), and San Francisco (SFO). But this new free test program goes much farther, as it's available to any international arrivals at other airports.
Taking a free test kit isn't mandatory, as there's no current requirement for post-arrival testing or quarantine in the U.S. after international travel. The Biden administration reportedly considered last month requiring international travelers to self-isolate for up to a week and test after arriving from abroad, but that proposal wasn't adopted.
Handing out free test kits could help travelers test and identify positive COVID-19 cases more easily after a trip abroad. Yet it comes after backlash to the Biden administration's decision not to mail out free test kits to every American, instead relying on a convoluted reimbursement model through private insurance.