(NEXSTAR/WOOD) — Americans are now able to request free at-home COVID-19 tests from the federal government as the country faces widespread shortages. Those shortages will also impact how many free tests you can request, with the White House limiting orders to just four free tests per home.
While it was initially reported that the website would not begin accepting orders until Wednesday, Jan. 19, the website, COVIDTests.gov, is now online and appears to be processing requests for tests. These tests are completely free to order, with tests expected to ship within 7 to 12 days.
Available tests are rapid antigen at-home tests, not PCR tests. All of the tests being shipped are FDA-authorized, but you will not be able to select which brand you receive. The tests give results within 30 minutes and can be used whether or not you have COVID-19 symptoms or are vaccinated.
On the website, the White House recommends taking the at-home test if you begin having COVID-19 symptoms, at least five days after you have close contact with someone with COVID-19, or when you are going to gather with a group of people.
HOW TO ORDER YOUR FREE COVID TESTS
Once you visit COVIDTests.gov, you will see a button on the homepage to order your tests. If you need a COVID-19 sooner than the free tests are expected to arrive, the federal government recommends reviewing other testing options, such as purchasing an at-home test and having your health insurance cover the costs.
When you click on the “Order Free At-Home Tests” button, you will be taken to a new page on the U.S. Postal Service’s website. There, you will need to fill in your contact information and shipping address.
You won’t be able to select how many testing kits you order – the U.S. Postal Service’s website defaults to the limit of four tests. After filling in your contact and shipping information, you can select “Check Out Now.”
If you input your email address to get status updates on your order, you should receive a confirmation email shortly after checking out on the U.S. Postal Service’s website. Once your order ships, the U.S. Postal Service says it will send you a tracking number and updates on the expected delivery date.
COVID-19 tests are expected to begin shipping in late January.
CAN I ORDER MORE TESTS?
Amid the December surge in omicron COVID-19 cases, President Joe Biden announced the White House would purchase 500 million at-home tests to kick-start this program. In January, President Biden announced he would double the order to 1 billion tests.
Although this seems like a large number of tests, the White House is imposing a limit of four at-home tests per residential address, regardless of how many people live in each house. If you are searching for a free test, there are other options available, like community testing sites and by-appointment testing with major retailers and pharmacies.
The White House has also instructed health insurers to cover the costs of purchasing at-home COVID tests. This means private health insurers are now required to cover eight home tests per month for each of their members.
Depending on when and where you purchase the at-home tests, you may be able to get it covered by insurance on the spot, says the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. If you do pay out of pocket, you’ll want to keep your receipt as proof of purchase. You’ll need to file a claim for reimbursement with your health insurance company, not the federal government.
How much money you can be reimbursed for depends on if your insurer has set up a “network of preferred stores, pharmacies, and online retailers at which you can obtain a test with no out-of-pocket expense,” explains CMS.
If your insurance company has set up a way for your to get a test without paying upfront, then you will get up to $12 per test. If your insurer has not set up its own network or way for you to get the test through them, then they’ll owe you the full cost of the test kit, even if it’s more than $12. More details about this program can be found here.
WHY IS TESTING IMPORTANT?
As COVID-19 cases continue to remain widespread throughout West Michigan, Dr. William Nettleton, the medical director for the Kalamazoo and Calhoun County health departments, says testing is still a crucial part of the pandemic response.
“Testing is very important at this stage in the pandemic particularly since how infectious Omicron is,” Nettleton said. “The more we can identify cases the sooner we can remove folks who are infected from others and also the sooner we can get people into treatment.”
Avoiding common mistakes is crucial to ensuring accurate results like following the directions and using the proper swabbing technique for each specific test. Also, you might need to take more than one test.
“If you have a negative test and you still strongly feel you’ve been exposed or have symptoms of COVID go ahead and take another COVID-19 antigen test 24 to 48 hours after that initial negative and continue to stay isolated,” Nettleton said.
Cathy Armstrong, the program supervisor for communicable disease with the Kent County Health Department, says at home tests are a helpful tool and are more likely to produce a false negative than a false positive.
“The fact that we’re being allowed to order them for no cost is an excellent incentive for us to use those,” Armstrong said. “If you have symptoms of COVID and you test positive then we assume that you have COVID and there wouldn’t be another test or PCR test to be required.”
Armstrong says making more tests available will be helpful because finding a test can be difficult whether it is shopping for one at the store, ordering online or going to a testing site.
“There’s a lot of testing sites like laboratory testing sites that are extremely difficult to get tests. I know there has been for quite some time and approximately two to three to four day wait,” Armstrong said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.