covid test

When and How You Can Get Free COVID Test Kits From the Government

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The federal government conducted a soft launch of a website designed to give Americans access to free at-home COVID tests, with an eye toward the full launch coming on Wednesday.

Beginning this week, free at-home rapid COVID test kits will be available for order through a government website.

How many can you order, which tests will you be sent and when will actually get them?

Here's a breakdown of what to expect:

WHEN AND HOW CAN YOU ORDER YOUR FREE COVID TEST KITS?

A new federal website to request free test kits was set to launch Wednesday, with the first shipments going out to Americans by the end of the month.

Starting Wednesday, Jan. 19, free tests can be ordered at covidtests.gov, according to the website. But late Tuesday morning, many users reported they had been able to place their orders already.

A White House spokesperson confirmed the site was launched in a "beta phase" Tuesday and was "operating at limited capacity ahead of its official launch," which remains scheduled for Wednesday.

"This is standard practice to address troubleshooting and ensure as smooth of an official launch tomorrow as possible," the spokesperson told NBC News. "We expect the website to officially launch mid-morning tomorrow."

"The tests will be completely free—there are no shipping costs and you don’t need to enter a credit card number," the website states.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO RECEIVE THE TESTS?

The White House says “tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering” through the U.S. Postal Service. USPS reports shipping times of 1-3 days for its first-class package service in the continental United States. Shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, Army Post Office (APO), Fleet Post Office (FPO) and Diplomatic Post Office (DPO) addresses will be sent through Priority Mail.

Importantly, given the shipping and process times, Americans will need to request the tests well before they meet federal guidelines for requiring a test.

HOW MANY TESTS CAN I ORDER FROM THE WEBSITE?

The White House says that “to promote broad access," shipments from covidtests.gov will initially be limited to four rapid tests per residential address, no matter the number of occupants.

WHAT IF I HAVE MORE THAN 4 PEOPLE IN A HOUSEHOLD?

According to the website, the limit will remain four per residential address.

"To promote broad access, the initial program will only allow 4 free individual tests per residential address," the site states.

WHICH HOME TEST WILL I GET?

That will vary. The federal government has secured more than 420 million tests for distribution through covidtests.gov already, with plans to increase the order to 1 billion tests in the coming weeks. All of the tests supplied will be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and are capable of detecting the more-transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19, which is the dominant strain in the U.S. While they are packaged differently and may use slightly different procedures, officials said, the test mechanisms of detection and effectiveness are generally the same. All tests will come with detailed instructions.

CAN I CHOOSE WHICH TEST I GET?

According to the site, people will not be able to choose which brand of at-home tests they receive, but "all tests distributed as part of this program are FDA-authorized at-home rapid antigen tests."

WHAT IF MY SHIPMENT NEVER ARRIVES?

The government says people who experience problems with their testing shipments should contact USPS.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO TEST FOR COVID?

The CDC states that anyone who may have been exposed to someone with COVID should test five days after their exposure, or as soon as symptoms occur.

"If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19," the guidance states.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said that incubation times could be changing, but those who test early should continue testing even if they get negative results.

"We might be learning that the time of incubation might be a little shorter. So maybe you'd be testing at two days," Ezike said. "Obviously if you're symptomatic, you test right away. But you know, if you want to test at two days, but that negative test... the two days should not make you think, 'Oh good, I'm clear,' you know? You might want to test again and of course symptoms you cannot ignore - scratchy throat, headaches, all kinds of symptoms - anything new can be a symptom of this new illness."

IS THERE ANOTHER WAY TO GET A TEST KIT FOR FREE?

Beginning last weekend, private insurers are required to cover the cost of up to eight at-home rapid tests per month per insured person, according to a new Biden administration rule.

People have the option of buying tests at a store or online, then seeking reimbursement from their health insurance provider. Insurers are being incentivized to work with pharmacies and retailers to develop plans to cover the cost of the tests with no out-of-pocket cost to customers, but those programs will not be immediately widespread.

Those with public health insurance through Medicare, or without insurance, will be directed to covidtests.gov to order tests or to community health centers in their area offering free testing.

HOW WILL I BE REIMBURSED?

The Biden administration says the procedures will differ from insurer to insurer, and it is encouraging Americans to save receipts from rapid test purchases for later reimbursement and to reach out to their insurance providers for information.

Critically, the requirement only covers purchases on or after Jan. 15. Insurers are not expected to retroactively reimburse the cost of tests purchased earlier.

WHAT ARE OTHER TESTING OPTIONS?

The Biden administration is emphasizing that the website is just one tool for Americans to access COVID-19 testing. Millions of free tests are available at participating pharmacy locations, community health centers and Federal Emergency Management Agency-backed sites in some parts of the country experiencing a surge in cases.

WHY IS BIDEN BUYING THESE TEST KITS?

It represents an acknowledgement by the president that the administration needs to do more to increase access to COVID-19 testing, which is an important tool to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In cases where infected people show symptoms or not, testing is the only way to find out if they have the virus so they can avoid being out and about and potentially spreading disease.

Demand for test kits soared as the holidays neared and people grew eager to test themselves and their families before traveling and as the omicron variant spread rapidly in just a few weeks to become the dominant strain in the U.S.

Biden's promise of 1 billion test kits is in addition to the administration's earlier pledge to send 50 million rapid tests to community health centers across the country.

HOW MUCH WILL THE PROGRAM COST?

The White House estimates the cost of purchasing and distributing the first 500 million tests at about $4 billion. That will be paid for with money from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill Biden signed into law in March.

WILL THE GOVERNMENT PROGRAM MAKE IT HARDER FOR ME TO FIND A TEST AT THE DRUGSTORE?

White House officials say the covidtests.gov tests are coming from new manufacturing capacity and should not interfere with existing supplies that drugstores, health clinics and state governments are relying on.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU TEST POSITIVE USING AN AT-HOME TEST?

Those who test positive using an at-home test are asked to follow the latest CDC guidelines and communicate the results to their healthcare provider, who is responsible for reporting test results to the state health department.

According to Chicago-area health departments, people should assume the test results are accurate and should isolate from others to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

"If you test positive for COVID-19, you must isolate," Arwady said. "There is no need to repeat a positive at-home test in a medical setting. We don't want people going into the emergency department just to get a tested. Treat a positive as a positive, stay home and isolate for five days."

NBC Chicago/Associated Press