Need an At-Home COVID Test? Here’s Help Finding and Using One

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay reporter >

MONDAY, Jan 10, 2022 (HealthDay Now) — The boom in the Omicron variant across the United States has left people scrambling to find home COVID-19 testing kits.

“There is a lack of testing, no doubt about it, because of the sheer volume of people who want and need to get tested,” said Laurie Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “Demand is high and we want people to experience it. The problem is we want them to be able to get it.”

The allure of home tests is obvious – you are in charge of the process. You collect the sample, usually by wiping the inside of your nose and, in the case of rapid tests, doing lab work at your table or counter. Usually you will get results within minutes.

Here’s what you need to know about how these home tests work, where to look for them, and when it’s best to use them.

What tests can you do at home?

There are two main types of COVID-19 tests you can take at home – antigen tests and polymerase chain reaction tests.

antigen tests These are the tests that are considered “quick” because they give results in less than an hour. They look for proteins on the surface of the coronavirus that trigger an immune response from your body.

There are more than a dozen antigen tests approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Popular brands include Abbott’s BinaxNOW, Quidel’s QuickVue, OraSure’s IntelliSwab, BD Veritor’s At-Home and Intrivo On/Go.

PCR tests Look for the actual genetic material of the virus. They’re more accurate than antigen tests—in some cases, they’re very accurate—but while you’re taking a sample yourself at home, you’ll usually have to either hand it in at your doctor’s office or mail it to a lab to get the results. It may take one to three days to respond.

Popular brands of PCR tests include LabCorp’s Pixel, DxTerity, and Everlywell.

How accurate is it?

Rapid antigen tests are fairly accurate, especially if you have symptoms of COVID, because at this point you have high levels of detectable viruses in your body. Not only does a positive test mean you have COVID, it means that you are more likely to get an infection.

“They’re great at answering the question, ‘Is it safe to be around me,'” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. “

Antigen tests are more likely to give false-negative results if you’ve been infected and you haven’t yet had symptoms. But at this point, “if you have such a small amount of virus, you’re not likely to be highly contagious to others,” noted Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Looking for certainty? PCR tests are the “gold standard” for detecting and diagnosing COVID, but they also have their drawbacks.

PCR tests are so accurate that they can detect the genetic material of ancient coronavirus debris in your body, long after you’ve been healthy, and get rid of all the live viruses inside of you.

“A PCR test can remain positive for an extended period of time, literally, weeks,” Schaffner said. “It’s not really a good test to get you out of isolation.”

There have been concerns that some molecular and antigen tests may not be able to detect the Omicron variant as well as previous COVID variants. The FDA has noted this concern, but is still investigating.

Where can you find the test?

Antigen tests are sold over the counter and are available at drugstores, supermarkets such as Walmart and Target, and online retailers such as Amazon.

However, as many consumers have found, an increase in Omicron causes a local deficiency in tests. “It’s not always available at every pharmacy you go to that you want to buy,” Schaffner said.

Before setting off to the pharmacy, you may want to first call your doctor’s office or a community health center to see if they have any quick tests on hand, Freeman suggested.

“If you are a patient in a community health center or rural health center, your best bet is to contact your provider, and these tests should be available at those centers,” Freeman said.

You should also check with your local health department to see if test kits are distributed anywhere in your community. For example, “there are libraries, at least in my area, that also distribute free tests,” Freeman pointed out.

President Joe Biden has promised to make 500 million test kits available to Americans, in addition to those already available for purchase. the Washington Post On Friday, it reported that the White House is finalizing plans to start shipping the kits by mid-January, including a website that would allow people to order a quick test.

Meanwhile, tracking sites like, HotStock, ZooLert and BrickSeek have added home COVID tests to their list of hot products available through online retailers.

As with N95 respirators and other COVID-related supplies, buyers should also be wary of fakes. The Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of approved antigen tests; Try to review that list before buying.

how much will you pay? Two sets of rapid antigen tests cost less than $14, but retailers like Kroger and Walmart started raising prices after a 2021 deal with the White House to sell the tests at a discount expired. Tests like BinaxNow are available for about $24 at drugstores and convenience stores, and about $20 at Walmart.

However, price gouging is also on the rise: CBS News On Monday I reported that some websites are now charging double or triple fees for hard-to-find test kits.

Biden said insurance companies will pay for the at-home test starting in January, but details of how that will work have not been announced.

When should you test?

Experts say, you shouldn’t use an at-home rapid antigen to test yourself immediately after you’ve been exposed to COVID. Even if you had the virus, the virus may not have had a chance to replicate itself to detectable levels.

“Tests are most accurate when you have symptoms, which is when you have the most viruses in your throat,” Schaffner said. “A lot of people after what they think is exposure run out the next day or the next day and they get tested. Well, it’s not likely to test positive at this point. It’s too early.”

Instead, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that asymptomatic people who have been exposed to COVID undergo a PCR test, which can detect even minute amounts of viruses in your body.

Experts said antigen tests should be used primarily to make sure you’re safe to be around before you travel or attend a gathering or event, even if you don’t have symptoms.

“Antigen tests are excellent tools for determining if someone has enough viral leakage to infect another person, so they are very useful as screening tools for asymptomatic individuals who want to know their condition prior to social interaction,” Adalja said.

Schaffner said he and his extended family relied heavily on home tests during the holidays. They have all been vaccinated and boosted and all are wearing masks, but the tests have provided extra comfort for family gatherings.

“We decided on Thanksgiving morning and Christmas morning that we would all do a quick test. We were all negative,” Schaffner said. “It reassured us even that when we got together, we decided to take our masks off. It gave us an extra level of assurance and some relief that we could do safely.”

Experts said antigen tests can be used to help tell if your symptoms are COVID, but you should follow up on home testing with a more accurate PCR test.

Keep in mind that you can still get a negative test even if you have COVID with symptoms. “If someone is sick, a negative test should lead to a repeat test, more formal testing and an evaluation of other causes of symptoms,” Adalja said.

Schaffner says the CDC doesn’t recommend people get tested before they come out of quarantine, and with good reason. An antigen test or a PCR test can give a false result that will either keep you in quarantine when you’re healthy or lead you not to take proper precautions when you’re still infectious.

“Most people want an honest answer or no,” Schaffner said. “Life is more complicated than that.” “That’s why the CDC didn’t treat testing as a way for you to get out of isolation or quarantine — because they were aware of the limitations of the tests.”


  • Laurie Tremmel Freeman, CEO, National Association of County and City Health Officials
  • Amish Adalja, MD, senior investigator, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore
  • William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

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