An iHealth COVID-19 rapid-testing kit. Credit: Amir Aziz

Updated May 17, 2022: The federal government is again offering free COVID-19 tests. This time the U.S. Postal Service will deliver eight free rapid antigen tests to households. See the information below to learn how to obtain your free test kits.

The Biden administration’s program to send rapid COVID-19 tests to homes through the U.S. Postal Service launched on Tuesday. The federal website prompts residents to fill out a USPS form with their name and address to receive the rapid tests in a little over a week. But the at-home delivery system doesn’t appear to be working for everyone.

Order your free rapid COVID-19 test now through USPS. The website is also available in Spanish and Chinese.

Monthly deliveries are limited to four per address, which poses a problem for households with more than four residents, like multi-generational homes and people who live with several roommates. 

In some cases, residents of multi-unit buildings have also reported problems placing orders. Both Oakland and Berkeley are home to lots of renters, many of whom live in properties with multiple apartments. According to 2019 census data, about 60% of households in each city are renters, a rate higher than the state average. 

We spoke to East Bay residents and service providers about problems they’re running into with the federal test distribution program and ways of fixing these bugs. We’ll update this piece as more information becomes available. 

Residents facing issues with the USPS form can file a service request online or call the help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.

If you live in an apartment building

The federal program is designed to provide four tests to each household. That means your apartment should get four, and so should every other apartment in your building, no matter if it’s a duplex or a high-rise. For many residents of multi-unit buildings in Oakland and Berkeley, the system is working out as it’s meant to. Each unit has successfully placed their orders. 

But we also heard from tenants of other multi-unit buildings who’ve encountered difficulties. In some cases only one apartment could order, and in others, none could. Many of the challenges seem to boil down to how an address is formatted—whether the unit number is listed before or after the street address, or whether only one of the units has an official address, for example. Oakland resident Sara Kassabian, who’s contributed reporting to The Oaklandside, lives in a duplex where the unit letters “A” and “B” are not recognized by USPS, and did not work in the unit field on the form. Ultimately the residents had to enter their addresses in two separate formats to get the two apartments through. 

USPS spokesperson Dave Partenheimer told Cityside that the agency is seeing “very limited cases” where addresses are not correctly registered as multi-unit buildings, which “could lead to COVID test kit ordering difficulties.” He didn’t provide the number of properties this issue is affecting.

If your home is a live-work unit, or a business address

Oakland and Berkeley each have many buildings officially designated as “live-work” spaces, where residents can both live in their units and run a business out of them. This set-up is especially popular among artists. Stephanie Goode, who runs her own tech support and graphic design business out of her Jingletown live-work space, tried to order COVID-19 tests for her household first thing this morning. But Goode’s “address comes up as a business address,” not permitting her to order, she said. While she understands the intention to direct scarce tests to people instead of companies, she said the issues facing live-work residents will affect plenty of people. “There are so many here in the Bay Area,” she said. Not interested in waiting on hold with USPS for hours, Goode settled for asking her neighbor to share two of her household’s tests.

If you live in a homeless encampment 

Local governments have been setting aside rapid tests for priority groups after the federal government began delivering the kits early this year. In Berkeley, for example, those groups include people living in homeless shelters, transitional housing and rehabilitation centers, as well as essential workers, day laborers, domestic workers and those who would not otherwise have access to over-the-counter at-home testing. Berkeley received 3,000 self-test kits from the government and many of them have been delivered on site at these locations, as well as through community partnerships and outreach. 

If you don’t speak English

Currently, the USPS site is available in English, Spanish, and Chinese. According to the White House, the Biden Administration will launch a hotline to help those who are unable to place orders online. In addition, the administration will work with local community-based organizations to provide tests for in-person distribution. 

If you live in another type of congregate housing, like a dormitory

Universities like UC Berkeley and school districts have been providing their students with free rapid tests in addition to free PCR testing since late 2021. If you live in congregate housing that’s part of an institution, like a university or senior care group, rapid tests may already be available to you. Senior homes in the Bay Area are also receiving support from the state government in the coming weeks to access more rapid tests.

For the federal program that launched Tuesday, students in some dormitories across the country have reported ordering issues, with the system only recognizing one dorm room in a building in some cases.

UC Berkeley had a pilot program for at-home rapid tests, but it will be discontinued on Jan. 29. It will still be offering PCR and rapid tests through its health center.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.