The surge of the Omicron variant across the United States has left people scrambling to find at-home COVID-19 test kits.
“Tests are in short supply, there’s no doubt about it, because of the sheer volume of people wanting and needing to get tests,” says Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “The demand is high and we want people to test. The problem is we want them to be able to get it.”
The appeal of at-home tests is clear — you are in charge of the process. You collect the sample, usually by swabbing the inside of your nose, and in the case of rapid tests, you perform the lab work at your own table or counter. Usually, you’ll get results within minutes.
Here’s what you need to know about how these home tests work, where you can look for them, and when it is best to use them.
Which tests can you take at home?
There are two main types of COVID-19 tests you can administer at home — antigen tests and PCR tests.
Antigen tests are the ones considered “rapid” tests because they return results in under an hour. They look for proteins on the surface of the coronavirus that provoke an immune response from your body.
There are more than a dozen U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved antigen tests. Popular brands include Abbott’s BinaxNOW, Quidel’s QuickVue, OraSure’s IntelliSwab, BD Veritor’s At-Home and the Intrivo On/Go.
PCR tests look for the actual genetic material of the virus. They’re more accurate than antigen tests — in some cases, too accurate — but while you take a sample yourself at home, you usually have to either drop it off at your doctor’s office or mail it to a lab to get results. It can take one to three days to hear back.
Common brands of PCR tests include LabCorp’s Pixel, DxTerity and Everlywell.
How accurate are they?
Rapid antigen tests are fairly accurate, especially if you have COVID symptoms because at that point you have high levels of detectable virus in your body. A positive test not only means that you’ve got COVID, but that you’re more likely to be contagious.
“They are great at answering the question, ‘Is it safe to be around me?'” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore shares.
Antigen tests are more likely to return a false negative if you’re infected but