Postal system

The Postal System’s Most Ambitious Program in 246 Years: COVID Testing

There’s a warehouse in Denver that looks as boring as it gets. You can drive there two or three times – as a Colorado Sun reporter recently did – before you even see its address, lightly stenciled above a door.

Its exterior is painted… in one color. The details would be included here if they were distinct enough to be retained. Indescript is too kind a term.

That’s exactly what the U.S. Postal Service loves, because it’s under the guise of this building beyond blandness that the service carries out what its leaders consider one of the most ambitious and important programs . in the 246-year history of the postal system.

The warehouse is one of 43 distribution centers across the country for the national COVID home test delivery program to every household that orders one.

Inside the warehouse are literally hundreds of thousands of test kits, bundled up in envelopes and awaiting mailing labels. They are stacked in massive boxes – about 350 per box – and the boxes are stacked two high in symmetrical rows that fill much of the 40,000 square foot warehouse, reminiscent the famous final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, only for things the government wants to send you for free instead of keeping it a secret.

COVID-19 test kits arrive at a USPostal Service Fulfillment Center in Denver, CO and are ready to be packaged, labeled and shipped to Colorado residents by postal workers. (Kathryn Scott, special for The Colorado Sun)

Dozens of workers buzz between tables, their hands in constant motion as they apply labels to packages – up to 500 labels per roll, up to a dozen rolls each per day.

“We don’t really think about how much we ship each day because we’re so busy,” said DiMarco Barnes, a longtime USPS employee who has worked in the fulfillment warehouse for two months.

The program opens for a second round

The Postal Service has so many tests on hand that it has opened the COVID testing program for a second round.

Originally, households were limited to one order of test kits each. Each order included four home tests.

But the government website — covidtests.gov – is now accepting orders for a second round of four home tests. Orders only require a name and address, again with a limit of one order per household.

There is also a state program to send free home tests to Colorado residents. But health officials announced on Thursday that the program would end, with no further orders being accepted after 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15. Orders placed before this time on the state website – covidathometesting.colorado.gov – will be executed through Amazon. People can order through state and federal programs.

For Amber McReynolds, the former Denver Chief Electoral Officer who now serves on the USPS Board of Governors, the federal program shows how the Postal Service is part of the nation’s “connective tissue,” stepping forward to help in times of crisis.

“We’re the only operation or network that can reach 160 million addresses every day,” she said.

She said it was an honor for the Postal Service to help with the test delivery program.

do the mail

Even with its considerable reach, however, the program wasn’t exactly an easy lift for service. To begin with, the expertise of La Poste is in delivery. As minor as it may seem, putting things in envelopes and affixing labels to them presented a huge logistical challenge, especially when launching a new national program.

“We don’t necessarily make our own mail,” said Hannah Winterbottom, chief industrial engineer of operations for the Postal Service, who helped set up the fulfillment process at the Denver warehouse. “So to be part of this revolutionary project, we have a lot of pride.”

Kenny Shead works in the ÒkittingÓ area on the floor of a U.S. Postal Service distribution center, where he wraps COVID-19 test kits in bubble wrap and places them in packaging. (Kathryn Scott, special for The Colorado Sun)

The Denver warehouse — the Postal Service asked The Sun not to disclose its specific location for security reasons — normally operates as an overflow space during the holiday season. Many people working at the warehouse continued to keep up with the holiday crowds.

But everything else is new, from the panels hanging overhead, to the lines glued to the floor, to the 72 work tables laid out in neat rows.

Test kits arrive on pallets at the warehouse loading dock. From there the boxes are opened and the kits are bubble-wrapped and placed in envelopes. Shipping labels for orders are printed at a station on the side, then workers tape the labels and scan them before sorting the packages into boxes to be sent to fulfillment centers.

The Denver warehouse primarily serves Colorado, but packages made there have occasionally been sent to states as far apart as New Jersey or North Carolina. The Postal Service said the average time between an order arriving and leaving the fulfillment center is just over a day. Over 270 million COVID test kits have been delivered across the country.

Postal workers DiMarco Barnes, left, and Sarah Odins-Lucas stick address labels on newly packaged COVID-19 test kits inside a USPostal Service Fulfillment Center, in Denver, CO. (Kathryn Scott, Colorado Sun Special)

For workers like Barnes, those numbers are staggering, as is the impact those tests can have once they reach their destination. Sarah Odins-Lucas, her colleague working across the table at a labeling station on a recent day, said family members told her she was a hero. Both blush at the description.

“We may not see the good we’re doing,” Barnes said. “We don’t see someone opening the package and seeing what it means to them or how it benefits them. It’s bigger than us.


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