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Free at-home COVID tests ramp up, but many still struggle to find them

At-home COVID tests are covered by insurance and shipping free via USPS, but where can you find them now?

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The COVIDTests.gov website allows each household to order four free tests.

Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

The effort to bring widespread COVID-19 testing to all Americans picked up steam as health care insurers began covering the cost of at-home tests and the federal government started taking orders for free at-home tests shipped by the Postal Service.

On Wednesday, the White House launched COVIDTests.gov, a website for Americans to order free at-home COVID test kits. Each household can request four COVID-19 tests, with orders expected to ship near the end of the month via the US Postal Service. Americans can also order tests via hotline -- 1-800-232-0233 -- if they can't access the website. 

"This program will ensure that Americans have at-home, rapid COVID-19 tests available in the weeks and months ahead -- in addition to the number of other ways they can get tested," the White House said. "The administration is quickly completing a contracting process for the unprecedented purchase of 1 billion at-home, rapid tests to distribute as part of this program."

Also, as of Jan. 15, health insurance providers are now required to cover the cost of eight at-home COVID tests per month per individual. That means a family of five can get 40 free tests per month. Customers can be reimbursed for COVID kits up to $12 per test, or receive free tests at no cost from participating in-network pharmacies.

Several state and local governments have also begun distributing free COVID tests to residents, but a shortage of test kits and high demand have made it very difficult for many Americans to find at-home tests. Read on to learn more about at-home COVID-19 tests, including where you can get them now.

For more information on COVID-19, get the latest on the best masks for COVID, how to pick the right booster shot and how to tell the difference between COVID, the flu and a cold.

How do I get free at-home COVID-19 tests?

Americans can now request four free tests per household online at COVIDTests.gov. The US Postal Service will deliver kits in the continental US through First-Class Package Service, starting at the end of January. Shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, US Territories and any military addresses will be sent through Priority Mail.

According to a White House statement, the kits will typically ship within seven to 12 days of ordering.

President Joe Biden announced on Jan. 12 the government was doubling the number of available free tests to 1 billion, and providing 5 million PCR tests for free to schools per month.

Several states are already issuing free COVID-19 tests to residents, including Colorado, Iowa, Connecticut, Washington, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Washington, DC, is making at-home tests available for pickup at area libraries while other cities, such as New York and Boston, are distributing them to local health clinics. 

Washington state launched its Say Yes! Covid Test site on Friday but was quickly overwhelmed. With 650,000 free tests on hand, the state stopped taking orders about six hours after launch with the message: "We have had an overwhelming response to the initiative and have already exhausted the limited supply available for home delivery."

As of Saturday, however, Washington's website is currently again accepting at-home COVID test kit orders for all state residents.

We'll continue to update this list as more states and cities announce free COVID tests.

Where can I buy at-home COVID-19 tests?

At-home rapid COVID-19 tests are usually available at pharmacies like Walgreens, Walmart and CVS, and via online retailers like Amazon. The White House is allowing insurers to establish a roster of in-network pharmacies and to cap coverage of kits bought at out-of-network retailers. Check with your insurance company to see which stores are in your network.

The rapid spread of the omicron variant has led to a test kit shortage and forced retailers to place 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.

Rapid antigen at-home tests are out of stock at many vendors right now. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation the first week of January found at-home COVID tests available online only 10% of the time.

As of Jan. 22, the only available rapid tests on the Walgreens website are single tests of Flowflex for $10 apiece. CVS has two tests available online: Quidel Quickvue at $24 for two tests and Flowflex at $10 for a single test.

Walmart's website has On/Go's 10-minute self-test available at $24 for two tests as well as a pricier Ellume rapid test at $35 for one. Amazon currently has the BD Veritor rapid home test available at $35 for two tests, as well as a whopping 90-pack of iHealth test kits for $1,782 (about $20 per two tests). We'll continue to update as availability changes.

How do I get reimbursed for COVID test kits?

As of Jan. 15, health insurance companies are required to reimburse Americans for eight at-home antigen tests per person a month, under a plan announced by Biden. If an individual has been directed to undergo COVID-19 testing by their medical provider because of underlying health conditions or other factors, there is no limit on the number of tests covered.

Carriers can establish in-network pharmacies where the cost will be covered up front, and cap coverage at out-of-network retailers at $12 per test.

Though the Biden plan is not retroactive, some states -- including Vermont -- required insurers to start covering at-home kits earlier. You may also want to check with your employer, as some private companies also began offering reimbursement options for at-home tests before the Jan. 15 deadline.

How to get reimbursed for at-home COVID tests varies considerably among specific health insurance companies. Follow the links below for information about at-home COVID test reimbursement for the five US carriers with the largest memberships.

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

Biden's new rules on reimbursement for at-home COVID-19 tests don't currently apply to Medicaid and Medicare, although Bloomberg Government reports test kit producers are lobbying to change that.

People with Medicare -- a free federal program for all Americans 65 and older -- who also have private health insurance can receive reimbursement from their insurer.

State Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program, aka CHIP, programs are currently required to cover FDA-authorized at-home COVID-19 tests without cost-sharing, according to HHS.

What if I don't have health insurance?

For those without insurance, Biden said there will be "thousands of locations" where you can pick up free COVID-19 test kits to use at home in private, rather than get swabbed in a drive-thru clinic. You can also order your free tests from the COVIDTests.gov website, though you're limited to four per household.

Those who don't have health insurance can also access free kits at community health clinics and other local sites. The Department of Health and Human Services offers a search tool for finding community-based testing sites for COVID-19.

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 $25 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. The On/Go kit of two rapid tests is currently selling for $25 on Amazon and $30 on Walmart.

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.

The extreme shortage of kits has led some to resell them on platforms like Craigslist, eBay, Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok, often at an inflated price and with fraudulent merchandise.

"We've received reports that unauthorized sellers are trying to profit from the pandemic by selling COVID-19 tests online," Washington Attorney General Karl Racine tweeted Jan 4. "Please beware and only buy tests through authorized retailers so you can ensure the integrity of your test."

Facebook's parent company, Meta, told CNN Business it prohibits the sale of test kits on any of its platforms.

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

The two main types of COVID-19 tests are rapid antigen tests and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Antigen tests can be taken at home and return results in about 10 to 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 the 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 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, and longer if you're symptomatic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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.