What Biden’s COVID-19 Plan Means for At-Home Rapid Tests

At-home COVID-19 tests by Abbott and Quidel

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The Biden administration plans to increase the availability of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests.
  • Experts say that increasing testing capacity will be key to quelling the pandemic.
  • Rapid COVID-19 tests can be less sensitive than laboratory-based PCR tests and they shouldn’t be used as a replacement for vaccination and mask use.

To curb the surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, President Joe Biden said it’s critical to make rapid at-home test kits more widely available at a lower cost.

As part of his latest COVID-19 strategy, Biden said the government will support manufacturers to increase their production capacity to handle the expected influx in demand for test kits.

“From the start, America has failed to do enough COVID-19 testing,” Biden said in his speech last week.

The administration promised to spend $2 billion to buy 280 million rapid tests, some of which will be offered at long-term care facilities, community testing sites, homeless shelters, prisons, and other sites serving vulnerable populations.

Major retailers like Amazon, Kroger, and Walmart will offer at-home rapid tests at up to 35% less than the normal cost for the next three months.

Ellume, one of six companies with FDA authorization to sell over-the-counter COVID-19 rapid tests, said the company saw a 900% increase in product usage in the past month.

“As President Biden referenced in his address last week, at this point in the pandemic, widespread testing is crucial to help identify early infections, prevent significant transmission events in the community, and reduce further pressure on the healthcare system.” Juliet Grigg, medical advisor at Ellume, tells Verywell in an email.

Increasing Testing Capacity

With increased demand, rapid COVID-19 test kits have been sold out in stores around the country. CVS is now limiting the number of at-home tests customers can buy in stores or online, while Amazon's and Walgreen’s websites say they've run out of most tests as of today.

In response to the shortage, Biden will invoke the Defense Production Act, a law to ensure that critical supplies are available during emergencies. The administration had invoked the act in February to speed up production of vaccines, at-home tests, and medical products.

Under the new plan, the administration will buy and distribute 25 million free tests to community health centers, food banks, testing sites, and shelters. It will also expand the number of pharmacies that offer free testing to 10,000.

“Testing remains an important tool in our toolbox. Robust public health laboratory testing, clinical laboratory testing and rapid testing are all critical to helping slow the pandemic," Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, said in a statement.

Are Antigen Tests Reliable?

The United States has so far relied primarily on laboratory-based testing. Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR testing, is nearing record highs, with nearly 2 million tests administered per day at the end of August.

With new need to test large groups of employees, students returning to in-person learning, and travelers, rapid tests can be a more convenient alternative. People may be able to get a read on their COVID-19 status within minutes with a rapid test, compared to several days for a PCR test result.

Antigen tests, a type of rapid test that can be used at home, are not as sensitive as PCR tests. The effectiveness of antigen tests varies, and they often require a larger amount of viral particles in a sample for an accurate reading.

“No test is perfect," Sheldon Campbell, MD, PhD, professor of laboratory medicine at Yale School of Medicine, tells Verywell. "And all tests have the ability to have false positives and false negatives of various sorts."

An antigen test only indicates a detectable viral load at the time of testing. People who are asymptomatic or vaccinated may carry a lower viral load, but Campbell says they could still be infectious.

Though quick and convenient, rapid tests can be costly if used routinely. Tests typically cost between $12 and $38, with the cheapest being the Abbott Laboratories BinaxNOW two-pack for $23.99.

Health insurance companies are required to cover the cost of laboratory-based tests and some rapid tests, but consumers may not be reimbursed for tests purchased directly from retailers. Per Biden’s plan, Medicaid will begin covering at-home tests for beneficiaries.

Additionally, while rapid tests make it easier to check COVID-19 status at home, there's currently no easy way to report results to health authorities, making it difficult to keep tabs on infection rates.

How to Use a Rapid Test

If there’s a chance you may have been exposed to COVID-19, rapid tests can provide some peace of mind. But the timing of that test is important, Campbell says.

Ideally, you might take a test three, five, seven, or even nine days after initial exposure, he adds. However, the rule of thumb is to test between three and five days after exposure since testing can be time and cost intensive.

What This Means For You

Antigen tests can tell you quickly whether you are infected with COVID-19. However, the tests may give a false negative if your viral load is low. If you feel sick with symptoms typical of COVID-19, experts recommend taking a laboratory-based test.

If you're feeling sick after potential exposure to COVID-19, Campbell says to opt for the more accurate PCR test to ensure that you’re not infecting others with the virus.

“If you're going to use an antigen test, the most important time to use it is right before you go to that concert,” Campbell says. “It's important to know if you've got COVID, but in the bigger picture, it's much more important to know if you're going to go there and spread it to other people.”

Even if you’re vaccinated, it’s important to take other precautions like wearing a mask and testing to keep others and yourself safe, he adds.

"People shouldn't think of [the precautions] as a way of completely eliminating risk—they’re one tool,” he says.

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.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim Guidance for Antigen Testing for SARS-CoV-2.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.