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COVID-19 At-Home Testing: The Latest Info

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Author name: Lee Health

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COVID at-home test graphic

For all the inconvenience the pandemic has brought to our lives, at least we don’t have to wait in our cars anymore, dreading the “swab jab” up noses and then driving off blinking tears out of our eyes.

That’s because FDA-authorized COVID-19 diagnostic tests are available for us to collect our own sample and test by using a nasal swab system that gives us results in minutes at home. Additionally, the FDA has authorized over-the-counter tests that can be bought online or in a store that allows us to collect our own sample using a nasal swab before we send it to a laboratory for analysis.

But, we have questions. And Lee Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Stephanie Stovall, Chief Clinical Officer of Quality/Safety and Hospital-Based Care, is here to answer our most pressing ones about these DIY at-home tests.

Q: What types of FDA-authorized at-home COVID-19 tests are available?

A: The FDA has approved two forms of at-home COVID-19 tests: molecular and antigen tests.

  • At-home rapid antigen tests. These tests provide a test result in 15 to 30 minutes and are the preferred option for at-home testing. They are best suited for individuals who are currently experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.  If there is a large number of viral particles present or if a person is symptomatic, then the virus is more likely to be detected by this test.
    • This form of testing is known to be slightly less accurate than a NAAT test (see No. 2 below), but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends it as a helpful COVID-19 screening measure.
  • At-home PCR molecular tests. These tests, also called nucleic acid, RNA, or PCR tests, are molecular tests that detect genetic material from the virus and are known for their accuracy. You might be able to conduct certain forms of this test at home, but it may take longer for you to receive the results because these tests are sent to a laboratory for analysis. Test results typically are available within 1 to 2 days after the lab receives them.
    • The CDC notes that at-home tests can help reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and infection alongside vaccination and boosters, mask-wearing and social distancing. Anyone can take a test, vaccinated or unvaccinated, with or without symptoms.

Q: Are at-home PCR tests more reliable than at-home antigen tests accurate?

PCR tests are considered more reliable or accurate but take longer for results. Home antigen tests are rapid but may not be as accurate. They are more likely to have an error result if a sample is not properly collected or there isn’t much virus present.

Also, there is some data suggesting that early in the course, the Omicron variant (the predominant virus strain in the U.S. and world presently) may not easily replicate in the nasal passage until later in the course of infection thus antigen tests may be less accurate if taken from a nasal swab.

Q: What should I do after a positive result?

A: If you test positive on an antigen test, even if you don’t have symptoms, you should take the isolation measures recommended by the CDC.

Q: When is the best time to test?

A: If you already have COVID-19–like symptoms, you should isolate. If you have a limited supply of at-home tests, you may want to wait two or three days before testing for a better chance of catching a positive result. Don’t waste a rapid test on the first day of symptoms. If your result is negative, you should test again a day or two later.

If you’ve attended a large indoor gathering, traveled, or received a notice of exposure, experts recommend testing two to three days after the exposure or event. And, if your test is negative, you should test again on days 5-7. Of course, if you test positive, you should take precautions right away and isolate yourself.

Have questions about getting a free at-home over-the-counter COVID-19 test or about an at-home test reimbursement claim? Visit the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for more information.

To learn how to order free at-home COVID-19 tests, go here.

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