A rapid test, provided by the federal program. Accessibility of COVID-19 rapid tests has expanded in the last month, with options at pharmacies, schools, and community centers. Photo by Luke Ramsey.

A federal program was launched on Wednesday, Jan. 19, which allows every US home to order four free COVID-19 rapid antigen tests. Instructions to order these test kits can be found at the website, covidtests.gov, in English, Spanish, or Chinese. Shipping is estimated to take between seven and 12 days. 

According to a White House Background Press Call on Jan. 14, this program was designed to allow households to stockpile rapid tests for the coming months, in addition to other testing resources. As of now, it is not designed to be a frequently occurring program, and every household is strictly limited to four test kits. 

For those who use all of the tests they order, “we hope that they can access other ways to get tested,” said a senior administration official during the teleconference. This includes “through pharmacies and online…20,000 free testing sites…[and] for those that are patients of community health centers, free testing and pick-up at community health centers.” 

Testing sites have been notoriously scarce during the last few months with the Omicron surge. Despite the White House advertising “20,000 free testing sites” around the country, finding them and making appointments can be difficult. At-home tests, sold at pharmacies and health centers alike, have been difficult to find as well. However, says a Walgreens associate, rapid test shipments delivered on Saturdays have been lasting the whole week. At the height of the Omicron outbreak, they had been selling out the day of restocking. As cases have decreased steadily since the end of January, the surge in demand for rapid tests has calmed.

As for the cost of said rapid tests, the White House has mandated that all private and public insurers reimburse patrons who buy any rapid test. For those without insurance, in the next three months rapid tests should cost “up to 35 percent less starting by the end of this week,” according to the White House website. The website’s message has not changed since at least Jan. 22. Additionally, “25 million free at-home rapid tests [will be delivered] to 1,400 community health centers and hundreds of food banks.”

The CDC and other health organizations recommend taking two rapid tests, spaced within three days of each other, to ensure maximum test effectiveness. If symptoms persist between tests, observe proper quarantine protocols; but without symptoms or a positive test, isolation is not recommended. This policy is due to possible development of symptoms and increase in viral load rather than high rates of false negatives or false positives, says Franklin school nurse Kay Manley. Because of this, tests work best when the subject is symptomatic. However, evidence suggests that antigen tests have lower levels of sensitivity than recommended by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), especially in children, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. This means that the tests’ ability to correctly identify positive cases is lower than ideal, resulting in more false negatives. 

After being exposed, Portland Public School (PPS) guidelines recommend waiting until the fifth day to perform a test, unless symptoms are developed. If the student is not symptomatic, they do not need to quarantine from school; individual policies may vary by workplace. However, if the student tests negative for COVID-19 but remains symptomatic, they should isolate at home until symptoms stop.

At school, rapid tests are easily accessible for symptomatic students. Students who develop symptoms while at school can go to the school nurse, located in room M-133, for a rapid antigen test. For those who develop symptoms outside of school, the student health clinic books appointments for rapid testing, held from 1:20 until 1:40 from Monday through Friday, usually testing three to four people per day. They can be reached at (503) 988-3370. After calling for an appointment, a clinic nurse will ask questions to determine the best course of action, and ultimately schedule the appointment based on that information. Availability of appointments range from same-day to next-day.