At-home COVID tests: More states providing them, and free tests for all of US coming soon

At-home COVID tests: More states providing them, and free tests for all of US coming soon

Published Dec. 19, 2021 in Cnet.com
By Katie Teague

Millions of Americans will be traveling over the holiday season. Here’s how to protect your loved ones with accurate at-home testing kits

The omicron variant’s arrival as Christmas and New Year’s travel ramps up has led to a shortage of test kits and raised costs for testing programs in many states. In response, manufacturers have increased production, and the FDA has been approving new tests at an unprecedented speed: ACON Laboratories says it will be able to produce more than 100 million Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test kits per month by the end of 2021, and more than 200 million by February.

We’ll share what we know now, and will continue to update this story as we learn more details, including when the program starts and exactly how it will work. Also, here’s the latest on Merck’s COVID antiviral pill and how to choose a booster shot.

Will free at-home COVID-19 tests be made available?


Starting early next year, over-the-counter COVID-19 test kits will be available for free to everyone: Under a plan announced by President Joe Biden, health insurance companies will be required to reimburse Americans for home antigen tests, which can cost more than $25 each.

Those who don’t have health insurance will also have access to free kits at health centers and other community sites. The Biden administration has pledged to make 50 million tests available at such locations.

The White House has said it will issue reimbursement guidelines to health insurers by January 15 and companies are expected to start refunding the costs of at-home testing shortly after. The plan is not expected to be retroactive, however, so kits purchased before then will not likely be covered. 

Some states, including Vermont, have mandated insurers to start paying for at-home kits now. Other states, including Washington, New Hampshire and New Jersey, have started issuing free test kits to their states’ residents. Massachusetts plans to distribute 2.1 million free test kits to 100 municipalities. 

If you don’t live in one of those states you may want to check with your employer, as some private companies have begun offering reimbursement options for at-home tests.

Once the White House plan does take effect, anyone with insurance will be able to submit a receipt or other proof of payment for reimbursement after buying a test. The process is similar to visiting an on-site testing facility and submitting your bill to a health insurance provider.

Where can I get an at-home COVID-19 test?

At-home rapid COVID-19 tests are available at pharmacies like Walgreens, CVS and Walmart. You can also buy them online at Amazon, and the stores listed above. It’s unclear at this time if you can still claim them on your insurance when you buy online. Each box typically comes with two tests, unless you buy in bulk.

What if I don’t have health insurance?

For those without insurance, Biden says there will be “thousands of locations” available to pick up COVID-19 test kits. You’ll be able to take the kit home to test in private, rather than get swabbed in a drive-thru clinic.

In its announcement on Dec. 2, the Biden administration promised to distribute at least 50 million free tests to community health centers and other organizations.

What should I do if my at-home test shows positive for COVID?

If you take an at-home test and it says you’re positive for COVID-19, it’s recommended that you turn your results in to your health care provider. You should stay home and isolate for 10 days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

For more information, here’s the latest on the federal vaccine mandate and everything you need to know about the Moderna booster shot.

First published on Dec. 2, 2021 at 12:50 p.m. PT.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

The best home COVID-19 tests

Here’s what to know about the best PCR and rapid antigen coronavirus tests you can take at home.

As the new omicron variant spreads and adds to spiking numbers of COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant, US health officials are encouraging people to use at-home COVID-19 tests before they gather for the holidays. In fact, the Biden administration recently announced that early next year, health insurance companies will be required to reimburse you for the cost of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests (and free at-home tests should become available if you don’t have insurance). Reimbursement guidelines will be issued Jan. 15, according to the White House

The US Food and Drug Administration issued emergency-use authorization for the first fully at-home self-test collection kit in December 2020, and we now have several ways to get hold of a diagnostic test. Heck, you can even order COVID-19 testing kits from DoorDash.

After trying many at-home tests, I found that my overall experience was more or less similar with each test. I visited the COVID-19 test website, took the symptom screening, entered my personal information, checked out and then waited for the self-test to arrive. When the kits were delivered, I followed the instructions to register the kit and sample collection, then I shipped the specimen back.

Only a couple of tests were different, including the Ellume COVID-19 test, which was the first rapid over-the-counter test that could be used completely at home without a prescription and without sending the home test to a lab.

There are a lot of testing kits out there. I didn’t have either a great or horrendous experience with any of these testing companies, so I don’t necessarily recommend one COVID-19 test over another. The best one for you ultimately depends on cost, whether your insurance, FSA or HSA covers the expense, and whether you prefer to take a saliva sample or nasal swab. Nonetheless, it’s worth knowing the minor differences between the 10 coronavirus tests you can get without a doctor or clinic visit. I describe each test here, so you can pick the best home COVID-19 test that fits. (Note: Some tests were added after this story was first published and haven’t been reviewed. We’ll note the ones that haven’t been.) 

FlowFlex

  • Where to buy it:CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Target, FlowFlex
  • Collection method: Nasal swab
  • Get results in: 15 minutes

FlowFlex is sold in the store at many popular retailers, making it a convenient (and cheap) option right now as tests started flying off the shelves this past week. This is a one-test-per-box rapid antigen test that will give you results at home after you swab both nostrils, mix it with the solution and follow the instructions appropriately. (Note: This test was added to the list Dec. 20 and hasn’t been reviewed.)

QuickVue

  • Where to buy it: Walgreens, CVS, Amazon, HyVee 
  • Collection method: Nasal swab
  • Get results in: 10 minutes 

A box of QuickVue comes with two rapid COVID-19 tests, so you can take a test before you leave town for the holidays and then again before you gather with family or friends. (Note: This test was added on Dec. 20 and hasn’t been reviewed.)

On/Go

  • Where to buy it: Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart
  • Collection method: Nasal swab
  • Get results in: 10 minutes

The On/Go test comes as a two-pack nasal rapid test that promises results quickly and from the comfort of your home. On/Go also comes with a companion app that will guide you through the process, and also save your results. (Note: This test was added on Dec. 20 and hasn’t been reviewed.)

DxTerity

  • Where to buy it:Amazon
  • Symptom screening:No
  • Collection method:Saliva sample
  • Ships to you in:3 to 5 days
  • Return-ship with:FedEx drop-off
  • Get results in:2 to 3 days after the lab receives your sample

The DxTerity COVID-19 at-home saliva test is the only one available on Amazon. The test isn’t Prime-eligible, but even with standard shipping it took only three days for the home testing kit to arrive. The testing kit comes with straightforward instructions to guide you through the COVID-19 testing process and should be returned on the same day for a PCR test at the lab.

LetsGetChecked

  • Where to buy itLetsGetChecked.com
  • Symptom screening:Yes
  • Collection method:Lower nasal swab
  • Ships to you in:1 to 4 business days
  • Return-ship with:UPS drop-off or scheduled pickup
  • Get results in:3 days after the lab receives your sample

LetsGetChecked was the first at-home COVID-19 test I tried, and I actually had to take it twice because my first attempt ended in “clotted” (inconclusive) results. The swab sample is sent to a laboratory and the analysis will include either PCR testing or transcription-mediated amplification. Overall, my COVID-19 test experience with LetsGetChecked was simple and straightforward.

Everlywell

  • Where to buy it: Everlywell.com
  • Symptom screening: Yes
  • Collection method: Lowernasal swab
  • Ships to you in:2 to 10 business days
  • Return-ship with:Varies, designated on your prepaid shipping label
  • Get results in:1 to 2 days after the lab receives your sample

Everlywell was one of the first companies to launch an at-home coronavirus test to find COVID-19 infection in early 2020. At first, the FDA shuttered the COVID-19 testing operation, but later granted Everlywell emergency-use authorization for its at-home COVID-19 test. Like other testing options on this list, the Everlywell kit provides clear testing requirements and instructions for collecting your sample and safely shipping the kit back for your test result. You can easily do testing at the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. This test detects the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and is not an antibody test.

Pixel by Labcorp

  • Where to buy it:Pixel.Labcorp.com 
  • Symptom screening:Yes
  • Collection method:Nasal swab
  • Ships to you in:2 days
  • Return-ship with:FedEx drop-off
  • Get results in:1 to 2 days after the lab receives your sample

Taking the Pixel COVID-19 test kit is simple. Nasal swabs are generally easier to take than saliva samples, at least for me, since I feel like it takes forever to fill test tubes with saliva. Make sure you send off your self-test sample the same day you take it, or the lab can’t process your test. The Pixel by Labcorp COVID-19 at-home kit is a molecular test (also known as RT-PCR test). If you get a positive result, make sure to limit your exposure to other people and get medical help.

Vault

  • Where to buy it:Vaulthealth.com
  • Symptom screening:Yes
  • Collection method:Saliva sample
  • Ships to you in:2 days
  • Return-ship with:UPS drop-off
  • Get results in:2 days after the lab receives your sample

The Vault COVID-19 test is just like these others, except that Vault requires you to schedule a Zoom appointment with a testing technician. The technician oversees the testing process to ensure that you follow the instructions, which leaves less room for an inconclusive test, false positive or false negative result. I definitely felt more confident using this testing option than the others, thanks to the Zoom supervision. Vault has also got rapid testing options apart from PCR testing. The rapid COVID-19 test includes rapid molecular testing and rapid antigen testing. Vault also provides FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines and workforce solutions for COVID-19 testing.

Vitagene

  • Where to buy it:Vitagene.com
  • Symptom screening:Yes
  • Collection method: Saliva sample
  • Return-ship with:FedEx drop-off
  • Get results in: 3 days after the lab receives your sample

The Vitagene collection kit requires you to take a saliva sample, which, again, I find more cumbersome than a nasal swab. This may not be the case for everyone, but spitting in a tube takes me forever and I get dry mouth. Otherwise, the Vitagene COVID-19 test was just as easy to take and ship as the others.

Phosphorus

  • Where to buy it:Phosphorus.com
  • Symptom screening:Yes
  • Collection method: Saliva sample
  • Ships to you in:1 to 2 days
  • Return-ship with:FedEx drop-off
  • Get results in:1 to 3 days after the lab receives your sample

Nothing about the Phosphorus test stands out except that Phosphorus uses SteadyMD as the ordering medical practice. SteadyMD is a telehealth practice that caters to athletes and fitness enthusiasts. That’s an interesting partnership — the epitome of telemedicine.

Picture by Fulgent Genetics

  • Where to buy it: Picturegenetics.com 
  • Symptom screening:Yes
  • Collection method:Nasal swab
  • Ships to you in:2 days
  • Return-ship with:FedEx drop-off
  • Get results in:2 days after the lab receives your sample 

Like the other at-home COVID-19 tests, the Picture collection kit is easy to use. My test arrived two days after placing my order, and I received my COVID-19 testing results less than two days after shipping the specimen back. In all, the whole COVID-19 test process took about four days, which is pretty fast for an at-home collection kit.

Ellume

  • Where to buy it:Participating pharmacies, drugstores and convenience stores
  • Symptom screening:No
  • Collection method:Nasal swab
  • Get results in:15 minutes

Ellume created the first at-home rapid antigen test for COVID-19 that’s available as an over-the-counter purchase at pharmacies and drugstores. You can buy this rapid test from Amazon or in person at a CVS Pharmacy.

BinaxNow

  • Where to buy it: Amazon, CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, HEB, Sam’s Club and Walmart
  • Collection method:Nasal swab
  • Get results in:15 minutes

Similar to the Ellume COVID-19 test, the BinaxNOW test kit uses a rapid antigen test that should provide results in about 15 minutes at home. This home antigen test kit comes with two tests so you can take a second rapid test a few days after your first one.

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