Skip to main content
For subscribers

You've ordered a COVID-19 test kit. What do you do with it?

Millions of free coronavirus test kits will arrive at Americans' homes over the coming days. When to use them and how they work.

Published Updated

You've just received – or expect to receive shortly – four free coronavirus tests from the federal government, so what next? 

Sure, you might be curious to see how one of these things works by jabbing a swab up your nose and making a test run, but maybe hold that thought for a moment.

Giving out 400 million free masks and mailing millions of rapid tests are the Biden administration's latest efforts to slow the omicron variant, which has driven daily cases to the highest levels of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 3,500 deaths were reported Friday – above last January's average of 3,157 per day. If the virus is unchecked, the U.S. death toll will reach 900,000 in February.

Reported new cases have trended down in the past few days, but testing also has fallen off.

COVID-19 tests and cases fall from pandemic peaks

How can you help put the breaks on the virus?

Getting vaccinated and wearing a face covering top the list, but testing yourself is a close third.

Taking the test is relatively easy (more on that below), but it's important to know when to take it. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines two times to test yourself. 

When to use your test kit

The Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency use authorization to a dozen home test manufacturers. The Biden administration announced contracts with three major manufacturers – Abbott Laboratories, iHealth Lab and Roche Diagnostics – to supply the first wave of free home tests. 

You can get your free tests here. The site says you can expect a test within seven to 12 days of ordering. That's in addition to the eight at-home coronavirus tests Americans with health insurance can get each month for free.

Where and how you can find at home COVID-19 tests
Starting January 19, Americans will be able to have at-home COVID-19 tests shipped to their homes, for free.
Staff Video, USA TODAY

Antigen tests are good at detecting higher levels of the virus in your body and can quickly alert you if you're infected, so you won't unintentionally infect others. Molecular PCR tests, often administered at clinics, doctors’ offices or hospitals, are more sensitive and can detect traces of the virus over a longer period during the course of an infection. Learning from a PCR test whether you're infected can take a day or longer.

How does a typical antigen test work?

How omicron affects your testing decision

Omicron, the most prevalent SARS-CoV-2 variant circulating in the USA, adds a layer of complexity because of how quickly the infection takes hold, according to a CDC study in December.

If a person is exposed to COVID-19, develops symptoms and tests negative, it does not guarantee the person is virus-free. Most home kits come with a second test that should be used 24 to 48 hours after the first.

Omicron will challenge our collective judgments as to when to test at home.

The only clear-cut advice from the CDC: Unless you have symptoms, you don't need to take a test if you've had COVID-19 in the past three months, recovered and come in contact with someone who is infected. 

Contributing: Karen Weintraub, Ken Alltucker, McKenzie Sadeghi, John Bacon, Celina Tebor, Kelly Tyko, Maureen Groppe

Published Updated