Attempting to stay up-to-date with the latest COVID-19 news and recommendations sometimes lead you down a path that seems to involve more questions than answers. While the omicron peak may have recently passed, experts warn that now is not the time to ease up on the recommended safety protocols. Still, with the prices of recommended masks surging and a limited stock of at-home tests, many people struggle to get the necessary supplies for themselves and their families.
In response, local and national governments have been working to increase access to free at-home COVID-19 tests in recent weeks. Here’s what you should know about these rapid tests, including how to obtain them.
Where can you buy an at-home test in person or online?
A quick glance at inventory in the city shows that stock is still limited at local Target and Walgreens stores. It’s best to call ahead and see if they have any tests available before visiting. Amazon also has tests available, starting at $17.99.
Note: Due to high demand, some stores are limiting the number of tests that can be purchased by an individual customer.
When should you test?
It’s recommended you test for the virus at least two to three days after having contact with someone with COVID-19, according to Dr. Felipe Lobelo, assistant director for epidemiology for Kaiser Permanente Georgia. Dr. Lobelo previously worked as a medical epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “With omicron, we know the incubation period is shorter, meaning you’re going to be contagious or develop symptoms faster than we used to see with previous variants,” he said.
Note: According to the Georgia Department of Health, you might test negative for COVID-19 if your viral load is “too low or you are too early in the course of your illness for a positive test.” Even if you test negative, you should continue to follow safety protocols such as wearing a mask and practicing socially distancing. Additionally, if you begin to develop symptoms within 10 days of your last exposure, DPH recommends additional testing.
When should you use a rapid test vs. PCR?
Because it can detect small amounts of the virus, a PCR test might return positive results after you’re no longer contagious. “The PCR test is going to be able to detect the virus faster than the rapid test, but also is going to detect traces of the virus for a longer time,” Lobelo said.
Dr. Lobelo said a rapid test is a better indicator of if you are contagious. If you have the supply to do so, he recommends using a series of rapid tests. Be sure to allow for a few days in between because rapid tests require a higher level of the virus to return a positive result. You could test negative if your viral load is too low or you test too soon after contracting COVID-19. Doctors at Yale Medicine say these tests are also more likely to return a false negative for people who have the coronavirus but are asymptomatic.
Considering tests remain in low supply, Lobelo recommends testing yourself right before you plan to attend an event with a group of people or spend time with someone who is at high risk for serious illness if they contract the coronavirus. You probably should test yourself after traveling or completing high-risk activities if you plan to be around other people, too. “If you’re just worried about yourself, waiting [to take a test] – and, obviously, isolating if you develop symptoms – is a good strategy,” he said.
Yes, but, how do I get a free at-home test?
There are a few possible ways to get a free rapid test, although stock supplies fluctuate often.
The Biden administration created a website where every household in America can order free at-home COVID-19 tests. The website says orders typically take about seven to 12 days to ship. Based on the time it takes for these tests to ship, they’re great to order in advance but not a solution for people in need of an immediate result.
Local counties, including DeKalb and Cobb, have also ramped up efforts to distribute at-home tests to residents, although supply is limited there, too. Fulton County’s website currently says all of their pickup locations are out of stock.
What about my insurance company? Are they distributing tests, too?
As of Jan.15, private insurance providers are required to provide eight free at-home tests for each covered individual per month. “We are requiring insurers and group health plans to make tests free for millions of Americans. This is all part of our overall strategy to ramp-up access to easy-to-use, at-home tests at no cost,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said. Medicare does not currently pay for at-home tests.
Insurance companies can set up a preferred pharmacy or retailer where beneficiaries can get a free at-home test without having to front the cost for it. Biden’s administration says it has incentivized insurers to do this, but in many cases, people will have to pay out of pocket for these tests and then submit a claim to be fully reimbursed. (Of course, that’s assuming they can actually find an at-home test in stores.) Unsurprisingly, the ease of this process varies based on your insurance provider. In some cases, you can submit paperwork and a receipt for reimbursement online. In other instances, you’ll need to print out a form before mailing or faxing it to your insurance company.
Outside of obtaining an at-home test, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has compiled a list of places in every state where you can obtain free or low-cost testing, including at CVS, Walgreens and Walmart. Additionally, here is a list of free community testing sites throughout Georgia. In addition, there are Black healthcare workers taking matters into their own hands to ensure as many people get the treatment they need.