What you need to know about rapid at-home COVID-19 tests

With a surge in COVID-19 cases, federal and state public health officials are recommending that people who want to ensure they're virus-free take advantage of at-home tests available at pharmacies and online.

So, how easy is it to grab an over-the-counter test and apply it?

That depends where and when you go. A random sampling of three Downers Grove drugstores Friday showed Jewel-Osco did not carry COVID-19 tests, Walgreens offered just Abbott Lab's BinaxNOW and CVS was out of stock until Monday.

There's also a bit of sticker shock. Typical kits contain two tests and promise results in 15 minutes while priced around $24. A one-test version on CVS' website came in at $10.

"The most widely used is the BinaxNOW," said Dr. Gregory Huhn, Cook County Health infectious disease physician.

If you have any doubts about a certain brand, "make sure that it is one of the FDA approved ones," said Dr. Michael Bauer, medical director at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.

How do rapid, at-home tests work?

Antigen COVID-19 tests help to confirm if you currently have a COVID-19 infection by looking for and identifying virus proteins, said Kevin Ban, chief medical officer at Walgreens.

"If you're in need of a faster result, a rapid antigen test is a good option as they're often received within 15 to 30 minutes," he said.

Sounds good, but testing a family of five for COVID-19 before traveling to grandma's house for the holidays could run over $70.

On Dec. 2, the Biden administration announced private insurers must cover at-home test kits.

"For those not covered by private insurance, we're going to make available free tests at thousands of convenient locations - locations for folks to pick them up and take a test kit home," Biden said, although details are scant.

"At this time, the Illinois Department of Public Health is awaiting more information from the federal government on plans to make over-the-counter tests more easily available," spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.

Here are a few more things to know about COVID-19 tests.

Q. How accurate are at-home tests?

A. Antigen tests perform well, although PCR tests, which detect COVID-19 using genetic materials, are "the gold standard of tests for accuracy," Ban explained. PCR tests are offered at doctor's offices, clinics and pharmacies. There are also some at-home PCR kits where users send samples to a lab, which can cost over $100.

Q. Are the at-home tests hard to perform?

A. Not particularly, but you do need to read the instructions carefully, doctors said. For information, go to the CDC's website at

Q. What's the best way to use a rapid test if I'm healthy but want to be sure I don't have COVID-19 before a holiday get-together?

A. These tests "work best if they're done as a two-step test, because they may not capture asymptomatic illness early on. And so it's best to test preferably one day before the gathering and on the day of the gathering," Huhn advised.

Q. What happens if I test positive?

A. Self-isolate, inform close contacts and call your medical provider for next steps that could include an additional test. If you aren't insured, the IDPH has a COVID-19 hotline at (800) 889-3931.

Q. What else should I know?

A. At-home antigen tests work "much better for people that have symptoms," Bauer explained. "If you're symptomatic - meaning you have aches, a sore throat, congestion, cough - their accuracy is definitely better in those situations."

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