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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

New Hampshire spearheads free at-home testing initiatives

The state originally distributed a limited number of free take-home rapid tests in November, but now that its supply has increased, New Hampshire residents may order free PCR tests online.

NH State House Copy (w/out caption)

On Nov. 29, the New Hampshire government offered to send free at-home COVID-19 rapid tests to the homes of all residents who requested one. Within one day of the announcement, all 800,000 available tests had been claimed. While both rapid and PCR at-home tests were initially hard to come by, and state-wide testing initiatives sought to mitigate this problem, the state now has free PCR tests available to order online, according to Democratic state senator Sue Prentiss. 

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said the state would continue to expand the program given its high demand, Bloomberg reported. In early December, according to WMUR, the government partnered with Vault Health to provide about 100,000 at-home PCR tests — 20,000 of which were distributed to schools and priority groups, while the other 80,000 were for the general populace. By late December, another round of more than 700,000 rapid tests became available for those who missed out on the first offer.

“[Testing] is a key prevention tool that we have that people can use to make good decisions,” Prentiss said. “Having it done and done at home [is] better than just guessing, ‘I haven’t been exposed,’ or ‘I’m not sure I’ve been exposed.’”

At the time of the November offer, New Hampshire was leading the country in per-capita cases, but today, the state has fallen outside the top ten, according to data from The New York Times. Prentiss explained that the state had deliberated on releasing more free tests throughout the fall as cases and hospitalizations rose, while students returned to school and residents grew anxious to see others for the holidays.

Government professor Herschel Nachlis, however, said that experts have been urging an increase in testing since the beginning of the pandemic.

“On the one hand, it’s a good sign that federal, state and local policy makers are increasingly recognizing that [testing is important] and trying to get tests into the hands of people through public and private efforts,” Nachlis said. “The larger problem, which isn’t New Hampshire’s fault, is that since spring of 2020, people like Danielle Allen at Harvard and Paul Romer at NYU have been saying, to get out of this pandemic, we’re going to need tens of millions of tests daily.”

Considering the early yet unheeded warnings, Nachlis said he thinks governments did not do enough to prevent spread.

“I think that the [free at-home] testing case is yet another of our healthcare system responding at greater cost after a problem has happened,” Nachlis continued. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We tend not to do preparation stuff, and then we tend to get hit with crises that cost more in blood and treasure.”

Before the new testing initiative was implemented, both in-person and take-home tests were hard to come by in New Hampshire. Nachlis traveled with 11 Dartmouth students to Washington, D.C. in December and said he amassed enough tests only “by driving to Walmarts around New Hampshire for the month prior to our leaving, collecting whatever rapid tests were available.” 

While the free at-home tests were also scarce at the onset, Prentiss said free PCR tests are now readily available online through Vault Health’s website. 

Free at-home testing has many advantages. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy director Jason Barabas said home tests allow not only for increased convenience — especially for those living in more rural parts of New Hampshire — but also more privacy for apprehensive residents.

“Think about it — how many times somebody has probably watched you put something in your nose,” Barabas said. “We teach kids to shelter that behavior and be a little discreet about it. But since [COVID-19], we’ve had a whole new version of people watching you do activities in this testing regime that previously were more in the private domain.”

Jess Bargamian ’25, a pre-med student, added that making the tests free could help residents for whom “price is a limitation.”

Despite its pros, at-home testing also has disadvantages. Nachlis noted a key issue: The rapid tests are not meant to be frozen, but many residents may leave their boxes in the cold before bringing them inside.

“In New Hampshire, they arrive to a mailbox where it is 10 degrees and they sit there freezing for five hours,” Nachlis said. “You bring them inside, you read the label and it says, ‘Do not freeze this test. It should not go below 59 degrees [for Quidel tests] or 33 degrees [for Intrivo tests].’”

Another issue with take-home testing is the problem of hoarding. Vault Health allows anyone who feels they need a test to order one, a policy which may lead residents to request an unnecessary supply of tests.

“If nothing’s stopping them from ordering a lot of tests, people are just going to order as many as they can,” Bargamian said. “I definitely know a lot of families that have a lot at home and then there [are] other families that get exposed and they can’t find a test anywhere.”

Barabas said he believes that with proper regulation, the government may be able to mitigate the issue of hoarding.

“Hoarding is always a possibility,” Barabas said. “I know a lot of major national drug chains, such as CVS, are limiting the number that you could purchase at any given time to try to consider supply and then hoarding potential.”

While Prentiss said she believes that free take-home testing is a good policy, she said the state needs to continue making tests available locally, and improve turnaround time for PCR test results. 

Despite setbacks to the COVID-19 response, Prentiss maintained that the free testing program is positive.

“Anything that we can do to prevent the transmission of this [virus] — and that’s what this will do — ultimately, I’m in favor of,” she said.