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Health - Public Health News

Posted on: January 26, 2022

Understanding COVID-19 At-Home Tests

Rapid Home Tests 

Now that rapid home tests from federal and state agencies are starting to arrive in people’s mailboxes, here’s a refresher on when to use them, how to understand the results, and what to do if you test positive.

COVID-19 self-tests (also referred to as home tests or over-the-counter (OTC) tests) are one of many risk-reduction measures, along with vaccination, masking and physical distancing, that protect you and others by reducing the chances of spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Self-tests are not to be used on children younger than 2 years old.

Where to get them:

Order up to four free tests per address from the CDC at https://www.covidtests.gov. No ID, credit card or health insurance information is required. All tests are FDA-authorized, at-home rapid antigen tests. You will not be able to choose the brand. They typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering and will be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

Free tests also are available through the Washington State Department of Health. Check here for more information. Say Yes! Offers free tests to Washington residents, one per address. Any information you choose to provide is kept private and not shared outside the program.

As of Jan. 15, most people with a health plan can go online, or to a pharmacy or store to purchase an at-home FDA-authorized test at no cost, either through reimbursement or free of charge through their insurance. This applies whether you purchased your health plan on your own or whether you get health insurance through your job. The test will either be free directly at the point of sale if your health plan provides for direct coverage, or by reimbursement if you are charged for your test. Be sure to keep your receipt if you need to submit a claim to your insurance company for reimbursement. If your plan has set up a network of preferred providers at which you can obtain a test with no out-of-pocket expense, you can still obtain tests from other retailers outside that network. Insurance companies are required to reimburse you at a rate of up to $12 per individual test (or the cost of the test, if less than $12). 

Health plans must cover 8 individual at-home over-the-counter COVID-19 tests per person enrolled in the plan per month. That means a family of four can get 32 tests per month for free. When ordered or administered by a health care provider, there is generally no limit on the number of COVID-19 diagnostic tests, including at-home tests, that must be covered.

In accordance with the American Rescue Plan, State Medicaid and CHIP programs are required to cover FDA-authorized at-home COVID-19 tests.  People with Medicaid or CHIP coverage should contact their state Medicaid or CHIP agency for information regarding the specifics of coverage for at-home COVID-19 tests, as coverage rules may vary by state.

When to use:

  • If you begin having COVID-19 symptoms like fever, sore throat, runny nose, or loss of taste or smell, or
  • At least 5 days after you have come into close contact with someone with COVID-19, or
  • When you’re going to gather with a group of people, especially those who are at risk of severe disease or may not be up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccines.

What results mean:

A positive self-test result means that the test detected the virus, and you are very likely to have an infection. A negative self-test result means that the test did not detect the virus and you may not have an infection, but it also does not rule out infection--it might be too early in your infection for the test to detect the virus.  Repeating the test within a few days, with at least 24 hours between tests, will increase the confidence that you are not infected. 

What to do if you test positive: 

  • Stay home or isolate for at least 5 days (Day 0 is the first day of symptoms or the day of the positive viral test for asymptomatic persons), wear a well-fitted mask if you could have contact with others, and avoid indoor gatherings to reduce the risk of spreading disease to someone else.
  • Inform your health care provider, as well as any close contacts you have been around starting from two days before your symptoms started.
  • Report your positive result to the Whatcom County Health Department here. This helps us to track the spread of COVID-19 in our community. 



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