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COVID-19 test have been hard to track down in the U.S. for months. But, ever since the Omicron wave of the virus hit, it's been nearly impossible to find tests. Now, the government is here to help.
Starting today, you can order four free rapid COVID-19 tests for your household at COVIDtests.gov. It's part of a government initiative to make testing more accessible to all Americans.
The Biden Administration has purchased one billion at-home rapid COVID-19 tests to give out to free to the public, and half of those are available for order now, according to a White House fact sheet.
"There will be free tests available for every household, and to promote broad access, the initial program will allow four free tests to be requested per residential address," the fact sheet states.
The government also announced earlier this month that private health insurance companies are now required to cover up to eight at-home COVID-19 tests per person per month for free. So, a family of four should be able to get up to 32 at-home rapid COVID-19 tests covered by health insurance in a month. (There's no limit, though, on the number of tests that are covered if they're administered or ordered by a healthcare professional.)
Basically, the hope is that it will be easier to get access to at-home COVID-19 tests in the future, whether you get them straight from the government or buy them from a store (only to be reimbursed by your health insurance later).
How to order your free COVID-19 tests from the government
The process is quick and easy. Simply visit COVIDtests.gov and select the button that says, "order free at-home tests." From there, you'll be redirected to the USPS's website, which prompts you to fill in your first and last name, along with your email (for shipping notifications) and address.
Then, click on "check out now" — that's it!
Tests will usually ship within seven to 12 days of ordering, so it's a good idea to get your order in now to have tests handy for the just-in-case.
Of course, four tests will only get you so far. If you need a test ASAP or want to have more than four for your household, some at-home COVID-19 tests are now available to the general public at pharmacies, larger retailers and even grocery stores and online— they just often fly off shelves as soon as they're stocked. CVS even has a message on its website, urging people to check back daily if a particular test they're interested in is out of stock, noting that it could be available again the next day.
Still, if you can find one, it's a good idea to grab it (keep scrolling for tests that are currently in stock!). "It makes sense to have a kit on-hand so it’s there if needed," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.
Some tests have been granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is a designation used during public health emergencies — like a global pandemic — that says the FDA recognizes that these tests can be used to diagnose COVID-19 and that certain criteria have been met. It's different from a full FDA approval, which typically comes only after a longer period of time has passed and more data is collected.
How do at-home rapid COVID-19 tests work?
If you've never used an at-home COVID-19 test, you probably have some questions about what, exactly, these are and how they work.
There's some variation with at-home COVID-19 tests and how they work, but rapid tests are the most common type. (Some tests will have you collect a specimen and mail it to a lab, where it will be analyzed, but these are less popular, given that they take longer to get results.)
Most at-home tests will have you do a nasal swab, per the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but others will ask you to give a saliva sample. Every test is different, so it's important to read the instructions carefully before you test and while looking at results, the CDC says. (The tests distributed by the government use a nasal sample, by the way.)
How accurate are at-home COVID-19 tests?
Rapid COVID-19 tests aren't necessarily as accurate as PCR tests, which are considered the gold standard of COVID-19 testing, but they can do a lot. One meta-analysis published in March found that rapid antigen tests picked up about 72 percent of symptomatic cases that were confirmed positive by a PCR test. The rapid tests were less sensitive with asymptomatic infections, though, only confirming 58 percent of those cases.
Each test kit conducts its own research on how effective the company's product is at detecting COVID-19 and, in general, Adalja says they're "adequate" at telling if you're infected or not — especially if you have symptoms of the virus.
There are several options out there for at-home COVID tests, but those that are authorized by the FDA have shared their data online. Among some of the more common tests, BinaxNOW says its test detects 84.6 percent of positive COVID-19 cases and 98.5 percent of negative cases, Ellume says its test has 96 percent accuracy in detecting symptomatic cases of COVID-19 and is 91 percent accurate in detecting asymptomatic cases. Fellow EUA test InteliSwab says its test identified 84 percent of positive samples in clinical trials, and 98 percent of negative samples, while QuickVue says its test picks up 83.5 percent of positive cases and 99.2 percent of negative cases. On/Go says its test is 95 percent accurate when used within the first seven days after you developed symptoms, while the iHealth rapid antigen test says it's 94.3 percent accurate at correctly identifying positive cases.
Where can I buy an at-home COVID-19 test ASAP?
Need a test now? We tracked down popular at-home COVID-19 tests that are still in stock. Here's where you can find them:
On/Go: This kit involves taking a nasal swab, putting it in a solution, squeezing a few drops of the solution into a test kit and waiting for your results. There's an app to guide you through the whole process. It's $24 at Amazon and $30 at Walmart for two tests.
iHealth rapid antigen test: This Amazon bestselling test kit has you take a nasal swab, dip it in a solution, add a few drops of the solution to the test kit and wait for your results. It's $20 at Amazon for two tests.
FlowFlex: This test was recently authorized by the FDA. It involves swabbing your nose, sticking it in a special solution and analyzing the solution in a test kit. It's $10 at CVS and $8 at Target (currently sold out, but stock is replenished regularly)
BinaxNOW: This popular at-home kit involves taking a nasal swab and waiting 15 minutes for your result. You can find it at Walmart for $20 and CVS for $24 (currently sold out, but stock is replenished regularly)
You'll have to contact your insurance provider about reimbursement for your tests —every company's procedures are different. But definitely save your receipts to be safe.
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