By Jim Walker
Sunday Signal Staff Writer
Under pressure from back to school, back to work and the spreading Omicron variant, the Covid-19 testing and quarantining landscape seems to be changing hour by hour. However, in most cases, a “rapid” Covid test is the first move of choice if you think you have been exposed to the virus, or if you have Covid-like symptoms. Such a test will quickly offer you temporary peace of mind (or not), and help you plan.
What is a rapid test?
The US Food and Drug Administration recommends that, if you think you have Covid-19 and need a test, you should contact your health care provider or local health department immediately. You can also find a community testing site. However, it can take days to get results back from the standard Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests you might get at medical offices and testing sites. These tests involve copying DNA, and so require laboratory services.
On the other hand, rapid tests, called antigen tests, work by looking for the presence of specific proteins associated with Covid-19. You swab your nose, and if such proteins are detected, a positive result appears on a test strip in a matter of minutes, much like an at-home pregnancy test.
These may be used at testing sites and you can buy FDA-authorized at-home test kits. But you should know that some at-home tests require you to mail the sample to a lab for analysis, so do not fall under the heading of “rapid.” Be sure you know what you are purchasing.
Rapid tests allow faster processing at the point of care. The fastest tests currently available can detect the virus in 15 minutes or less. But understand that, if you need official proof of a negative result, an at-home test might not suffice. Most at-home tests don’t allow you to document the result. However, some do. In such cases, you purchase an approved test, then schedule an appointment with a doctor online, who watches via a video link and generates an official document of your results.
On the other hand, a rapid test taken at a testing site or doctor’s office will generate official documentation. But be sure you understand the testing requirements for your purpose, whether it be back to school, on the job or airline travel. Some are stricter than others, especially as to when the test is to be taken.
Where and how
If you are testing for yourself, an at-home rapid test is definitely the easiest way to go. That is, if you can get your hands on one. Supplies have become very limited recently. For example, an at-home test ordered from Walmart in early December might have arrived the next day. At this writing, attempts at online ordering lean toward nothing available, or delayed delivery dates. CVS had several types of antigen at-home test kits on sale, including BinaxNow (two tests) for $23.99 and QuickVue (two tests) for $23.99, but they were out of stock online.
Walgreens sells the QuickVue tests for the same price, but also showed nothing available for order online, and noted, “visit your store to see what’s available.”
The iHealth Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test ($19.80 two tests) is available online at https://ihealthlabs.com/pages/ihealth-covid-19-antigen-rapid-test-details?ref=1mc1jj8e8y. But, at this writing, orders were to ship in 10 days, with another five to 10 days transit time.
Maybe not in your home, but nearby, CVS is offering no cost coronavirus testing. You can get a rapid Covid test for same day results, or a PCR test for results within days. And same day appointments for rapid tests were, indeed, available locally at this writing.
Walgreens is offering free Covid-19 testing for patients ages three and up at select locations. However, at this writing, no appointments were available locally.
But take heart, production of rapid tests is ramping up, and there are ways to get them. For example, the LA County Home Test Collection program offers free at-home test kits via mail. However, there is currently a few days delay. Those with a strict timeline are encouraged to consider other testing options, including the LA County kit pick-up program. https://covid19.lacounty.gov/la-county-pick-up-testing-kit-program/. Note that these latter are PCR tests.
As of Jan. 19, one billion free, at-home, rapid Covid-19 tests are available to be mailed directly to American households. To ensure broad access, the program will limit the number of tests sent to each residential address to four tests. Tests will usually ship within seven to 12 days of ordering. Visit www.CovidTests.gov.
The FDA emphasizes that, generally, a negative test result means the test did not detect the virus, and a positive result means the test did detect the virus and you are very likely to have Covid-19. However, there is always a chance that a test will return a false result. Because of this, even if you receive a negative result, you should keep practicing preventive measures, such as distancing, washing hands, and wearing masks, to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19.
Most important, if you are sick, you should stay home and isolate from others, even if you receive a negative test result. Talk with your health care provider to determine if you should be retested or for advice on managing your symptoms.
Good news and watch out
As of Jan. 15, your medical insurance is required to cover eight approved, over-the-counter, at-home Covid tests per covered individual per month.
And, finally, remember that the Covid-19 testing situation changes rapidly as demand and supply change. Yesterday’s information might not apply to today. Keep looking. Also, watch out for price gouging, phony online orders and phony test sites. Don’t get scammed.
For more information on ordering free test kits, community testing sites or more, visit https://covid19.lacounty.gov/testing/.