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Coronavirus

Inside the postal system’s most ambitious program in 246 years — mailing your COVID tests

A discreet warehouse in Denver holds hundreds of thousands of coronavirus test kits, part of a program to deliver free tests to every American household.

After affixing address labels, postal worker Licette Cajina tosses packaged COVID-19 test kits into a large box for shipment from this U.S.Postal Service Fulfillment Center in Denver, CO. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

There’s a warehouse in Denver that looks about as boring as they come. You can drive by it two or three times — as a Colorado Sun reporter recently did — before you even see its street address, stenciled faintly above a door.

Its exterior is painted … a color. Details would be included here if they were distinct enough to remember. Nondescript is too kind a term.

This is exactly the way the U.S. Postal Service likes it, for it is under cover of this beyond-bland building that the service is carrying out what its leaders believe is one of the most ambitious and important programs in the postal system’s 246-year history.

The warehouse is one of 43 fulfillment centers across the country for the national program to deliver at-home COVID tests to every household that orders one.

Inside the warehouse are literally hundreds of thousands of test kits, bundled into envelopes and awaiting mailing labels. They are piled into massive boxes — 350 or so per box — and the boxes are stacked two high in symmetrical rows that fill much of the warehouse’s 40,000 square feet, calling to mind the famous final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” only for things the government wants to send you for free instead of keep secret.

COVID-19 test kits arrive at a U.S.Postal Service Fulfillment Center in Denver, CO and are ready for postal workers to package, label, and ship out to Colorado residents. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dozens of workers buzz between tables, their hands in constant motion as they affix 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’re sending out every day because we’re so busy,” said DiMarco Barnes, a longtime USPS employee who has been working at the fulfillment warehouse for the past couple of months.

Program opens for a second round

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

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

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

There is also a state program to send free at-home tests to Colorado residents. But health officials announced Thursday that the program will be ending, with no more orders being accepted after 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, March 15. Orders made prior to that time on the state’s website — covidathometesting.colorado.gov — will be fulfilled through Amazon. People are able to order through both the state and federal programs.

To Amber McReynolds, the former Denver elections director who now serves on the USPS’s board of governors, the federal program shows how the Postal Service is part of the “connective fabric” of the nation, stepping forward to help during a time of crisis.

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

She said it’s an honor for the Postal Service to help make the test-delivery program happen.

Making the mail

Even with its considerable reach, though, the program wasn’t exactly an easy lift for the service. For starters, the Postal Service’s expertise is in delivery. As minor of a distinction as it might seem, actually putting things into envelopes and slapping labels on them presented a huge logistical challenge — especially when launching a new program with a national scope.

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

Kenny Shead works in the ÒkittingÓ area on the floor at a U.S.Postal Service Fulfillment Center, where he wraps COVID-19 test kits in bubble wrap and places them in packaging. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The warehouse in Denver — the Postal Service asked The Sun not to disclose its specific location because of security concerns — normally functions as overflow space during the holiday season. Many of the people working at the warehouse were kept on following the holiday rush.

But everything else is new, from the signs hanging overhead, to the lines taped to the floor to the 72 work tables set up in neat rows.

The test kits arrive on pallets at the warehouse’s loading dock. From there, the boxes are opened and the kits are bubble-wrapped and placed into envelopes. Shipping labels from orders are printed at a station off to the side, then workers stick on the labels and scan them before sorting the packages into boxes to be sent to distribution centers.

The Denver warehouse primarily serves Colorado, but packages made there have at times been sent to states as far away as New Jersey or North Carolina. The Postal Service said the average time from when an order comes in to when it leaves the fulfillment center is just over a day. More than 270 million COVID test kits have been delivered across the country.

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

To workers like Barnes, those numbers are staggering — as is the impact those tests can haveonce they reach their destination. Sarah Odins-Lucas, his coworker working across the table at a labeling station one recent day, said family members have told her she’s a hero. Both of them blush at the description.

“We might not see the good we do,” Barnes said. “We don’t get to see someone open the package and see what that means to them or how they benefit from it. This is bigger than us.”


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