A surge in demand for the nasal swab kits that can tell you whether you have COVID-19 in a matter of minutes is wiping out online retailers and prompting stores like CVS to limit the number of tests consumers can purchase at once.
Experts have a few explanations for the renewed interest in these rapid home test kits, which usually cost between $25 and $40, and most of the blame falls on the delta variant.
Delta’s rise leads to scarcity of home tests
The highly contagious variant is driving up COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the country, especially in communities where vaccination rates remain low. And this swell of infections is happening at a time when kids are headed back to the classroom and many adults are returning to the office.
Plus, new research shows delta “seems to replicate in the nasal pharynx more vigorously” than pervious virus variants, even in people who are vaccinated, explains Sten Vermund, M.D., an infectious disease epidemiologist and dean of the Yale School of Public Health. This suggests that vaccinated people, while highly protected from getting really sick with COVID-19, can spread the virus to others, including unvaccinated or immunocompromised individuals, “and in that sense do some damage,” Vermund says.
Then there’s the “convenience and interest in having the answer right away,” adds Matthew Binnicker, director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Mayo Clinic — especially after a year-plus of dealing with testing backlogs and delays. You don’t need a doctor’s note to buy the latest home test kits, and most bypass the days-long wait for laboratory processing. (There is at least one over-the-counter COVID test that does not produce immediate results. It uses a different testing technology from the rapid tests, called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, and relies on a lab to analyze the specimen.)
Manufacturers are aware of the sudden clamor for their rapid home tests and are working to fix it. Abbott, the maker of the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test, tells AARP that it started “scaling up manufacturing” when the company saw demand rise with delta’s dominance.
“We’re hiring people and turning on parts of our manufacturing network that were idled or slowed when [testing] guidance changed and demand plunged,” an Abbott spokesperson told AARP. “While there will be some supply constraints over the coming weeks as we ramp back up, we are [pulling] resources from all over the company to help meet this unprecedented demand.”
Ellume, whose COVID-19 home test delivers results digitally, told Bloomberg that it is also scaling-up production. And CVS wrote in an email to AARP that it is continuing to work with its suppliers to meet customer demand.
Testing is still key to helping slow COVID’s spread
With so much of the attention on vaccines these days, coronavirus testing can feel so 2020. But experts say that along with other preventive measures it’s still important when it comes to slowing the spread of disease, particularly when nearly half of the U.S. population remains unvaccinated. And home testing can play “a valuable role” in this strategy, Vermund says.
With cold and flu season on the horizon, “there’s going to be more situations where people are experiencing some symptoms that might be concerning for COVID-19 or influenza,” Binnicker says. “And so being able to quickly and easily perform a test at home is desirable and will become more of interest as we move into the next two, three, four months.”
In addition to cluing you in on whether your sniffles could be cold- or COVID-related, quick at-home tests can also be used as a way to navigate risk in certain situations — even for people who are fully vaccinated — like visiting a friend who is immunocompromised.
The rapid home-based tests, known as antigen tests, are considered less sensitive than PCR tests, and they can miss a positive case if the person infected has low levels of virus in the nose. “But it will catch the most infectious individuals. And they’re the ones who are the most important to catch anyway,” Vermund says.
So testing negative on one of these tests before visiting someone who is immunocompromised, for example, “would at least tell that individual at that point in time [they are] not shedding really high amounts of the virus” and their chances of transmitting the virus to the person they’re visiting is “going to be lower versus if [the test is] positive,” Binnicker says. You’ll want to reschedule your visit if you get a positive result.
And let’s not forget about group events: “There’s an increasing trend” for organizers of large gatherings — weddings, concerts, conferences and reunions — to ask everyone, including vaccinated people, to test themselves ahead of time to “be on the safe side,” Vermund says.
That said, it’s crucial to know that a negative test result, home-based or otherwise, isn’t a “free pass” to abandon other precautionary measures, Binnicker warns. It’s “really just one kind of mitigation step in our toolbox of helping to reduce risk of spreading COVID-19,” he adds.
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Taking an at-home test
Before you purchase a home test, make sure it has been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Check the label on the package, or consult the FDA’s database of antigen tests that have received emergency use authorization.
When it comes to ensuring accurate results, timing is key. If you don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 but think you may have been exposed, wait three to five days after exposure before you swab your nose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. If you do have symptoms and those symptoms are a result of a coronavirus infection, you’ll likely have enough virus in your respiratory tract for a rapid home test to pick up on.
Be sure to read the manufacturers’ instructions before setting up the test and swabbing your nose and be sure to follow the instructions in the order that they are listed. If you’re looking for some extra tips, the CDC has pointers on how to collect a sample.
If you test positive using a home test, Binnicker recommends contacting your health care provider and scheduling a confirmatory test. This will ensure your results get reported to health departments tracking the spread of the virus. It’s also important for your doctor to keep an eye on any concerning symptoms that may require additional care or treatment and for you to isolate yourself from others.
Some at-home tests are designed for serial testing, meaning a second test should be done a few days after the first. So if you test negative on the first one and two tests are included in the kit, be sure to follow up in a few days with a second swab for best results. The amount of virus in your respiratory tract may have changed since the last test. A second swab also helps account for any human error that occurred when administering the test the first time around.
If symptoms continue even with a negative test, you should still see a health care provider, Binnicker says. It could be the flu, which can be treated with antiviral medication. Cases of another respiratory virus known as RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) are also on the rise, and infections in older adults and young children can be dangerous.
And remember: A negative test doesn’t mean you can “just take the mask off, go wherever you want without a mask on and interact with unvaccinated people,” Binnicker says. Testing alone is “not a foolproof approach.”
Tips for Taking a COVID Test at Home
- Store all test components according to the manufacturer’s instructions until ready for use.
- Check the expiration date. Don’t use expired tests or test components that are damaged or appear discolored based on the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Clean the countertop, table or other surfaces where you will do the test.
- Don’t open test devices or other test components until you are ready to start the testing process.
- Read and record test results only within the amount of time specified in the manufacturer’s instructions. A result read before or after the specified time frame may be incorrect.
- Don’t reuse test devices or other components.
- After you have the results, discard the specimen collection swab and test kit in the trash, clean all surfaces that the specimen may have touched and wash your hands.
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.