The U.S. Postal Service became the nation’s de facto pandemic response unit after the federal government tasked it with delivering 500 million in-home COVID tests to American citizens.
The Biden administration introduced a website last week that allowed any American household to order up to four personal tests for free. The Postal Service must now ensure delivery of these tests, which will begin going out by the end of the month. To handle the incredible extra load, the agency has taken some extreme measures to prepare its own infrastructure.
How the USPS Plans to Handle the Extra Work
First, they hired thousands of seasonal workers. Normally, these hires would have only been needed through the Christmas holiday. They also converted more than 40 facilities into ad hoc distribution centers. Many believe this effort to be the largest mobilization in the Post Office’s 247-year history.
Some pundits also believe that the stakes for the country couldn’t be higher, due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant. Many Americans think that more testing will affect recovery in some positive way, so online orders continue to roll in. Now, the Postal Service must deliver.
According to sources near him, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy hopes that the test-kit assignment will alleviate some of the poor press and political heat that USPS receives. A positive showing here could generate enough goodwill to inspire more much-needed funding, and perhaps even a total restructure of the agency’s spiraling debt burden.
To win this battle, the USPS will need to overcome its own COVID setbacks and regulations. Rising workforce quarantines have already affected delivery times, as has ever-changing federal guidance. Plus, the pandemic caused a massive spike in online commerce, which handed the Postal Service an unprecedented increase in volume. The agency aims for a 95 percent on-time delivery mark for First Class mail. Lately, though, they have barely achieved 85 percent on-time delivery. Add another 500 million packages to the bottleneck and that’s where we’ll be soon enough.
“Even if you know how to do it, it’s never been done before. A lot can go wrong,” said one senior postal official. “But if we can pull it off, wow.”
What Sort of Issues Mailmen and Women Deal with Currently
The Biden administration also wants to hand the USPS 400 million N95 masks for distribution as well; though that plan hasn’t fully taken shape, yet. At the moment, nearly 20 thousand postal workers are self-isolating with COVID symptoms, according to their union. Health officials at distribution sites also can’t manage much reliable contact tracing because case rates keep rising too rapidly. Basically, it’s a tenuous situation that is about to be stressed even more.
Agency leaders present themselves as cautiously optimistic about the program, according to seven people directly involved with the effort. They do worry about the uncertain postal IT system and rising workforce infections, though. Even so, it’s full steam ahead for the USPS.
“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,” DeJoy said in a statement. “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.”