Time Is Running Out to Get Free Rapid Tests. Here’s How to Stock Up

A woman squeezing the sample liquid on a test strip while carrying out a Covid-19 rapid self test at home.
Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • When the coronavirus Public Health Emergency ends in May, so will federal funding for free rapid test programs.
  • COVID testing is still an important measure to keep transmission at bay. If you know your COVID status, you know whether or not to isolate.
  • There will still be ways to find free or inexpensive testing after the Public Health Emergency ends.

Even if you haven’t used a COVID test in a while, keeping a supply of rapid tests on-hand still matters. Ask Baltimore resident Jay Simons, 65, who tested positive for COVID for the first time in early March. 

“When my nose wouldn’t stop running and my head wouldn’t stop hurting, I was glad we still kept a supply in the den,” Simons told Verywell. “My wife works with an at-risk population, and I don’t always wear a mask, so knowing I was positive kept me home and away from others.” 

In May, it will be more costly to replenish your supply of at-home tests. That’s because the federal funding that covers free rapid testing initiatives will expire along with the national Public Health Emergency on May 11. 

People who are uninsured will likely have to pay out of pocket for COVID tests and treatments after May 11. At least one vaccine, Moderna, will remain free of charge, since the company pledged to keep it free to all. Those who are insured may have to pay co-pays for tests and treatments, which they don’t currently have to do.

“Testing is a public good to keep community spread low,” Robert Colgrove, MD, chair of the diagnostics committee at the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told Verywell. “[The pandemic is] on the wane, but that isn’t the same as gone. The risk of severe disease is quite low for younger people, but there’s still a significant risk for older people and those with underlying illnesses.” 

There are still ways to bolster your rapid test supply for free until May, and resources to keep the costs down after that. Here’s what you need to know.

How to Stock Up on Free Tests Before the Public Health Emergency Ends

White House Test Program: The federal government has been mailing free COVID-19 tests to households that requested them for more than a year, but will end on May 11. If you haven’t claimed your last batch of four free test kits (eight tests), you can order them online at https://www.covid.gov/tests, or call 800-232-0233. 

Medicare: You can order eight free tests per month per Medicare beneficiary in your household through May 11. Call the member number on the back of your card to find out how to order if you haven’t previously asked for tests. If this is your first time ordering, though, you won’t be able to order for months you missed in the past.  

Public Libraries and Community Health Centers: States have used funds to keep many public libraries and health centers stocked with test kits, but may not continue that after the Public Health Emergency ends. Jessica Baggett, MPH, senior advisor of public health response for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers told Verywell that after the PHE ends, “some states may continue to distribute what they have until they run out, others may continue to purchase [test kits] using alternative funding sources.”

When to Take a Rapid Test, According to the CDC

  • If you have symptoms, test immediately.
  • If you were exposed to COVID-19 and do not have symptoms, wait at least 5 full days after your exposure before testing. If you test too early, you may be more likely to get an inaccurate result.
  • If you are in certain high-risk settings, like a hospital, you may need to test as part of a screening testing program.
  • Consider testing before contact with someone at high risk for severe COVID-19, especially if you are in an area with a medium or high COVID-19 Community Level.

How to Find Low-Cost Tests After the Public Health Emergency Ends 

Medicaid: At-home tests will be covered at no-cost through September 2024, a year and a half longer than Medicare and private insurance. After that date, home test coverage will vary by state. 

Private Insurance: The Public Health Emergency required private insurance firms to provide eight free tests each month per covered beneficiary. (That’s different from the White House program, which has only sent tests per household.) According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, after May 11, private health insurance plans, including Medicare Advantage plans, will be able to decide how much coverage they offer for COVID tests, if any.

If you have private insurance, including through an employer, check with your plan to see if you’ll have to pay the full cost, a copay, or if you can get tests for free by using insurance. You can call the number on the back of your insurance card to learn more. Some insurers will even let you swipe your card at a pharmacy to procure tests. With others, you’ll need to file for reimbursement.

Community Testing Centers: Some community-based testing centers will still offer free or low-cost onsite testing after the Public Health emergency ends. Consider calling ahead to make sure a location is actually open for testing.

Flexible Savings Accounts: If you have a flexible spending account (FSA) through your employer, you can use those funds to buy rapid tests. Any money left in an FSA doesn’t roll over at the end of the year, so stock up on COVID tests if you don’t have other major needs. 

How to Make Your Supply of COVID Tests Last

While at-home tests kits do expire, the FDA has extended the expiration dates of many COVID tests. You can see a full list of brands with extended expiration dates, or search by name, here

Stephen Kissler, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said you shouldn’t use a test past its extended expiration date.

“The chemicals in the test degrade and your test results could be faulty,” he told Verywell. 

What This Means For You

It’s still important to take a COVID test if you’ve been exposed or are experiencing symptoms. That way, you’ll know whether or not to stay away from others. Even though free testing programs will be harder to find, there will still be ways to get free or cheap rapid tests.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.