Editor’s note: This article originally ran Dec. 27, 2021 and was updated Feb. 17, 2022.
Maybe you haven’t seen Grandma in two years, or you might have tickets to a concert or show, and you really want to go. Maybe you just want to get together with a group of friends for dinner or to watch some games.
But with COVID-19 infections surging, thanks to the highly infectious omicron variant, is it safe to gather? One popular strategy is to get a COVID-19 home test to reassure yourself and others that you’re not going to spread the disease.
Is that enough?
“Testing is one component of a mitigation strategy to keep families and communities safe,” says Melissa B. Miller, PhD, director of the clinical microbiology and molecular microbiology labs at UNC Medical Center. “Other components include vaccination, boosters, masking indoors, social distancing and hand-washing.”
So, if you don’t let down your guard with the other strategies, a COVID-19 test may provide some peace of mind or an early warning sign of infection. It’s important to take the test as close as possible to the time you gather or travel.
Testing “is not in any way, shape or form an absolute guarantee,” Dr. Miller says, but it can be a helpful part of a larger strategy to stay safe from COVID-19.
Selecting and Using an At-Home Test
The Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization to several COVID-19 tests.
The most dependable tests are those that are processed in a hospital lab, Dr. Miller says, but getting results may take hours or days. Tests being offered at many pharmacies and testing sites are similar to the home testing kits, which can offer results in about 15 minutes.
Make sure you wash your hands before taking a COVID-19 test. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly when collecting a sample to be tested (usually nasal, sometimes saliva) and for subsequent steps. You may want to have a timer ready because tests are time-sensitive.
If you get a positive result, you should first isolate yourself from others and notify anyone you have been in close contact with. Also consider notifying your healthcare provider, who may recommend treatment if you are at high risk of complications, Dr. Miller says.
“A lot of the home tests have a bar code that you can scan to report your results,” she says.
A negative test result does not guarantee that you have not been exposed to COVID-19 and cannot spread the disease to others.
Dr. Miller recommends testing again in 24 hours, especially if you know you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 symptoms or there is a high level of infection in your community—and the level of infection is high in almost every community in the United States right now. This serial testing strategy is also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health authorities. It can improve the accuracy rates of testing at home. Many kits come with two tests and may recommend a second round of testing in 24 hours.
While many clinics and health departments offer free COVID-19 testing, home testing kits can be expensive (one popular kit sells two in a box for $24). Residential households in the U.S. can order one set of four free at-home tests from USPS.com. Here’s what you need to know about your order:
- Limit of one order per residential address
- One order includes 4 individual rapid antigen COVID-19 tests
- Orders started shipping in late January.
Some public entities, such as libraries, also have given away tests.
Deciding Whether to Attend an Event
Even if you have a negative COVID-19 test, you should consider the kind of event you want to attend, Dr. Miller says.
“If you’re going to a smaller family gathering, and you know everyone is vaccinated and boosted, and they are masking and doing all the right things, then if you take a home test that day, then you can feel safe gathering,” she says. “That’s very different from going to a party with 100 people and you don’t know their vaccination history or how well they are doing their mitigation strategies.”
Think before you put yourself and others at risk.
“All these decisions people are making are affecting everyone in the community,” Dr. Miller says.
If you are concerned that you may have symptoms of COVID-19, talk to your doctor or find one near you.