In this photo illustration, a COVID-19 self-test package is seen displayed on a table. This self-test package is designed and sold by iHealth Labs, a company in California, and made in China. (Photo illustration by Michael Ho Wai Lee/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
These tests, said HSS, “will detect the currently circulating COVID-19 variants, are intended for use through the end of 2023, and will include clear instructions on how to verify extended expiration dates.” Free tests will begin to be shipped “starting the week of October 2,” according to a message you’ll see after placing an order on covidtests.gov.
This announcement aside, if you’ve been finding it hard to find a low-cost COVID test more generally, you’re not alone. Use the links below to find a free or low-cost COVID test near you, or keep reading to find out more about the return of these USPS test kits.
This will be the fourth time that the federal government has made a round of free COVID tests available to the public during the pandemic. Previously as of June 1, a now-removed message on the covidtests.gov said that ordering had “been suspended to preserve remaining supply” after President Biden ended the federal emergency status for the nation on May 11.
The news about free antigen tests came as part of a wider announcement by the White House of a $600 million investment in 12 domestic manufacturers of these kinds of COVID testing kits. As well as improving “preparedness for COVID-19 and other pandemic threats of the future,” the statement promised this funding would “secure approximately 200 million new over-the-counter COVID-19 tests for future federal government use.” HSS said that this program has already provided over 755 million free at-home COVID tests to households around the United States.
How the end of the public health emergency affected free COVID testing
Ending those executive orders meant a large portion of funding for free COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics then ended — and costs for individuals have now crept up accordingly. For example, after May 11 the federal government no longer requires insurance companies to reimburse families for eight at-home COVID tests per month.
Free tests will begin to be shipped “starting the week of October 2,” according to a message you’ll see after placing an order on covidtests.gov.
After placing an order, you’ll also see a message that expiration dates on these tests have now been extended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so don’t worry if you see “expired” on any box of tests you receive — you can still use them. See the FDA’s full list of expiration date extensions.
Something very important to note: Every residential address (and residential P.O. box) in the United States is eligible to receive one order of four at-home COVID tests — not every person or every family. This means multiple orders to the same address under different names won’t be processed.
For example, if you live with several roommates, or in a large multigenerational household, only one person can place an order for that address. Realistically, this might mean that the tests you receive are not enough to cover everyone in your household.
Find a COVID test through your health care provider
If you are insured with major Bay Area providers such as Kaiser Permanente or Sutter Health, the easiest option to secure a COVID test may be to make an appointment through that particular provider. Most providers offer sign-ups online through a member’s personal login, and appointments can also be made by phone.
People with private insurance may experience new out-of-pocket costs for PCR tests now that the emergency orders have ended, depending on the provider.
San Mateo COVID testing page now says that “State-sponsored COVID-19 testing has ended in San Mateo County” and that PCR and antigen tests “remain widely available through health care providers and pharmacies.” Sonoma County’s COVID testing page does not offer county residents any free or low-cost testing locations or resources without insurance, and instead says that you should “request a test from your health care provider or use an over-the-counter antigen test purchased at a local pharmacy.”
Always check to see how much you might be charged for a COVID test at these private testing facilities before your visit. Below are some of the private providers still offering COVID testing in the Bay Area:
Other pharmacies that previously offered free COVID-19 testing on-site, in a pharmacy location, have started charging for those same tests after the end of the federal emergency. Be careful to read the billing details if you are uninsured and it is marked as “free” or “no-cost.” Check the following pharmacy websites to see what’s available in your area:
As for the best time to test, if you’ve heard that incubation times for the virus are getting shorter — that is, the amount of time between getting exposed to COVID and testing positive — it’s true. People are testing positive for COVID more quickly than they were in 2020 when the average incubation period was five days, because the incubation period has changed with each new variant, confirms Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF.
While “we don’t have a ton” of up-to-date information on incubation times at this stage of the pandemic, notes Chin-Hong, given this general trend, it makes sense to take a COVID test as early as two days after exposure if you’re already having symptoms. And if you test negative at that time, test again the next day if symptoms persists.
An earlier version of this story originally published on September 20, 2023.
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