Free at-home COVID tests are coming soon: How do you get them?

The White House plans to make at-home tests for COVID-19 free for all Americans.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

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Starting Jan. 15, at-home COVID-19 test kits in the US will be available free to anyone who wants one, according to the Biden administration. People with health insurance will have COVID-19 tests reimbursed, and the White House plans to deliver 500 million free COVID-19 tests to people who request them.

On Wednesday, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said, “The deliveries of tests from manufacturers to the US government will begin over the next week or so. Americans will start receiving free tests in the coming weeks. We will set up a free and easy system, including a new website, to get these tests out to Americans.” Zients did not provide an exact date for the start of delivery or the website launch. 

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the White House and US Postal Service are finalizing the details on a plan to deliver the 500 million free at-home COVID tests to American homes. The plan will require the Postal Service and its labor unions to agree to extend its expanded seasonal workforce — an extra 40,000 workers brought on for the holiday season.

Also on Thursday, the Department of Defense awarded its first contract related to the 500 million free at-home COVID tests — a $51.6 deal with Goldberg Security, LLC of Newport Beach, Virginia. The purchase will be paid for with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Last week, the Pentagon announced a $137 million contract with Merck subsidiary MilliporeSigma to build a facility in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, that will manufacture nitrocellulose membranes, the paper that displays at-home test kit results. The deal will fuel the production of more than 83 million rapid COVID-19 tests a month, the DoD said in a press release.

Also last week, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization for the use of at-home COVID-19 tests made by German firm Siemens Healthineers and Korea’s SD Biosensor, bringing tens of millions more kits into the US every month.

While the FDA admits antigen tests “may have reduced sensitivity” in detecting the omicron strain, they can be taken at home and deliver results in just minutes. The more definitive PCR tests require lab technicians and a turnaround time of up to five days.

We’ll share what we know now, and continue to update this story as we learn more details, including when the free test-kit website will launch and how it will work. Also, get the latest on Pfizer’s COVID-19 treatment pill, Paxlovid, updates on mask mandates and how to choose the right booster shot.

Read more: Text this number for free rides, easy COVID-19 booster appointments

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

At-home rapid COVID-19 tests are usually available at pharmacies like Walgreens, Walmart and CVS, and via online retailers like Amazon.

Concern about omicron has led to a test kit shortage and limits on how many you can purchase in many regions: Walgreens currently allows each customer to purchase a maximum of four at-home tests, while CVS sets its limit at six. Walmart caps online purchases to eight tests but has no limit on in-store purchases.

If your area drugstore is out of test kits, try your state or local health department, as many have started distributing free kits to residents: Iowa’s TestIowa has many at-home collection tests available, for example, and Connecticut began giving out thousands of tests earlier this week, according to WVIT.

On Dec. 30, Oregon announced it was purchasing 12 million tests to distribute via health departments, schools and community centers, according to KDRV-TV.  

How do I get free at-home test kits?

The Biden administration is working on a website where people will be able to order test kits for free, Zients said on Wednesday.  

“Americans will start receiving free tests in the coming weeks.  We will set up a free and easy system, including a new website, to get these tests out to Americans,” Zients said, adding that more details will come “in the days and weeks ahead.”

Some states — including Washington, New Hampshire and New Jersey — have already started issuing free test kits to residents. Massachusetts and Connecticut both announced ambitious plans to distribute millions of tests, but have hit supply-chain snags.

Delays in Massachusetts have some schools delaying reopening after the holiday break, according to WCVB in Boston, and last week, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced a stumbling block in the state’s plan to deliver 1.5 million at-home test kits to residents “through what is clearly a shipping and distribution bottleneck on the West Coast amid unprecedented international demand for tests.”

On Dec. 31, Lamont said the state had gathered some 426,000 tests, according to CT Insider, and was distributing them immediately.

How much do at-home COVID-19 tests cost?

Rapid antigen tests are generally much cheaper than home collection tests. Costs vary from brand to brand, but kits generally run about $10 to $12 apiece, with two tests per kit.

Both Walgreens and CVS are selling Abbott’s BinaxNow and Quidel’s QuickVue tests — two of the first authorized by the FDA — for $24 for a pack of two. Acon’s FlowFlex rapid test is currently $10 for one test at both Walgreens and CVS.

Home collection tests — which require a nasal swab or saliva sample to be sent to a lab for analysis — cost much more than the rapid antigen tests and require a much longer waiting period to get results. But the “molecular” tests are considered far more accurate than antigen tests. CVS and Walgreens are selling Labcorp’s Pixel home-collection test for $125.

Buying in bulk would seem to be a smart way to cut down on cost, but that hasn’t happened in reality: Amazon’s two-pack of Intrivo’s On/Go rapid test sells for $24.49 ($12.45 each), but the price for 40 is $499, or $12.48 apiece, actually slightly more per test.

Almost all of the tests are out of stock for online purchase due to the current rush. On Jan. 6, the only at-home tests we found were Abbott’s BinaxNow at Walmart selling for $20 for two tests, and On/Go’s 10-minute self-test, retailing for $30, both through Walmart. Amazon is currently selling iHealth and On/Go rapid tests.

The FDA previously authorized 13 rapid at-home COVID-19 test kits and 61 at-home collection tests. In the last week, as demand has surged, the FDA has authorized two new at-home rapid COVID-19 tests – one from Siemens Healthineers and the other manufactured by Korea’s SD Biosensor and distributed by Roche.

How do I get reimbursed for at-home COVID-19 test kits?

Starting Jan. 15, health insurance companies will be required to reimburse Americans for home antigen tests, under a plan announced by President Biden. The plan is not expected to be retroactive, but some states, including Vermont, have mandated insurers to start paying for at-home kits now, however.

You may also want to check with your employer, as some private companies have already begun offering reimbursement options for at-home tests.

After the Jan. 15 deadline, anyone with insurance will be able to submit a receipt or other proof of payment for reimbursement after buying a test, similar to visiting an onsite testing facility and submitting your bill to your health insurance provider.

Check with your insurance company to see if they have special guidelines for reimbursement.

Will Medicare and Medicaid cover at-home COVID test kits?

Biden’s new rules on reimbursement for at-home COVID-19 tests do not currently apply to Medicaid and Medicare, although those rules could change. People with Medicare — a free federal program for all people 65 and older — who also have private health insurance can receive reimbursement from their insurer. People with Medicaid — a state and federal program for those with low or no income — will currently only be able to receive free tests from the federal government.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg Government reported that a group of at-home COVID-19 test producers is lobbying to have the rules updated to have Medicare cover at-home tests. Medicare is currently required by federal law to pay for COVID-19 PCR tests at no cost to the patient but is not required to cover rapid antigen tests.

What if I don’t have health insurance?

For those without insurance, Biden says there will be “thousands of locations” where you can 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. A website will be made available early in 2022 where anyone can order free rapid COVID-19 test kits delivered to their home.

Those who don’t have health insurance will also have access to free kits at community health clinics and other community sites. In a Dec. 2 announcement, the White House also promised to distribute at least 50 million free tests to local centers around the country.

How effective are at-home test kits in detecting omicron?

In general, at-home test kits are slightly less effective at detecting active COVID-19 infections than molecular (PCR) tests. In December, the FDA announced that at-home antigen tests “may have reduced sensitivity” to the omicron variant. If you have COVID-19 symptoms and test negative with a rapid antigen test at home, the FDA recommends following up with a PCR test.

At-home rapid test kits are still an important tool in checking the spread of the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, said last week in a White House briefing. “The fact that the sensitivity is diminished somewhat does not obviate the importance of the advantage and usefulness of these tests under different circumstances,” Fauci added, pointing to schools and family gatherings.

Should I use a rapid at-home test or get a PCR?

The two main types of COVID-19 tests are rapid antigen tests and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests. Antigen tests can be taken at home and return results in about 10 or 15 minutes. PCR tests are more accurate but require lab work and generally don’t provide results for at least 12 hours or even up to 5 days.

Both tests typically use nasal swab samples, though some collect saliva: PCR tests administered by a professional may require a nasopharyngeal sample that involves a much deeper nostril swab. Rapid antigen tests usually require swirling a swab in the nostril less than an inch deep.

PCR tests amplify genetic material from the collected sample up to a billion times to detect even the slightest amount of COVID-19 genes, making them highly accurate. They’re also more expensive, usually costing more than $100 apiece.

Rapid antigen tests simply detect the presence of COVID-19 antigens — the substances that prompt your immune system to create antibodies — and work much like home pregnancy tests. If your sample contains COVID-19 antigens, the thin line of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies on the test strip will change color.

Because rapid tests are simply looking for the existence of antigens, they work best when someone is symptomatic. Rapid antigen tests are less successful with early infections and asymptomatic cases. The risk of a false negative is much higher with a rapid test than a false positive.

The type of test you choose will mostly depend on your situation. Do you need results right now, and are willing to risk less accuracy? Then rapid antigen fits your bill. If you want closer to 100% accuracy and don’t need instant results, the “gold standard” PCR is your best choice.

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What should I do if I test positive for COVID-19 using an at-home test?

If you take an at-home test and it’s positive for COVID-19, it’s recommended that you share the results with your medical provider and local health department. Methods of reporting self-tests to health departments vary wildly, though: Some have online forms, others require email and still others use phone reporting. Check your local health department website for specific info on how to report a positive result.

After receiving a positive test result, you should isolate for at least five days — longer if you’re symptomatic — according to the CDC. Though the risk of false positives from rapid tests is low, most medical experts and health officials still recommend confirming a positive at-home test with a subsequent PCR test.

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

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.