Last week, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was no longer a global health emergency, a status it earned on January 30, 2020. And this Thursday, May 11, 2023, marks the end of the federal COVID-19 PHE (public health emergency) declaration in the United States. After this date, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s authorizations to collect certain types of public health data will expire. The date also marks the end of many benefits Americans received over the last three years, including free COVID-19 tests covered by insurance.
Why does this matter? Because, despite the White House’s decision to end the national public health emergency that began in March 2020, COVID-19 continues to infect roughly 75,000 Americans each week, according to CDC data. Additionally, new COVID variants regularly emerge, with mutations that make them more transmissible and immune-evasive than prior strains.
Among the methods for curbing transmission and diagnosing patients sufficiently early to avoid severe disease, testing remains the most effective. There are two types of COVID tests: PCR tests, typically performed in a laboratory, and rapid antigen tests or RATs, which can be self-administered at home. Both of these have been low-cost or free for most Americans since 2020 — but that’s about to change.
Why are free COVID tests ending?
Until this week, Americans with health insurance had been able to receive up to eight free rapid antigen tests per month, as private health plans were required to cover OTC tests. People could either purchase these tests at participating pharmacies or pay for them out of pocket and submit receipts for reimbursement from their insurance company.
Now, many health insurance companies, including UnitedHealthcare, Cigna, and Aetna, have confirmed that May 11 will be their final day for coverage. Still, private health insurance plans may choose to continue covering the tests; so contact your provider for more information. If you live in California, you’re in luck: the state has extended the requirement that insurers provide free COVID tests through November 11, 2023.
How can I get more COVID tests?
You’ve got until 11:59 p.m. on May 11 to stock up on COVID tests, so act fast. If you have health insurance — whether it’s an individual plan purchased through the marketplace, employer-sponsored, or Medicare — you are still eligible for eight free at-home COVID tests right now. Get them online or in-store. (People who use Medicaid can continue to access free COVID tests through September of 2024.)
Additionally, every US household is still eligible to order four free rapid tests by mail, as long as your last order was before December 15, 2022 — so get yours through the U.S. Postal Service at COVIDTests.gov today. All you need to do is enter your name and address.
Most COVID-19 tests cost about $12 each or $24 for a two-pack. While this isn’t a huge expense, it will be a barrier for many Americans, who may stop testing as a result. There will be some additional means through which you can acquire free at-home tests after the public emergency ends, however. According to experts interviewed by Today, you may be able to get them through local nonprofits, churches, libraries, schools, or workplaces. Ask your county health department or local pharmacies if someone in your community will continue providing free tests.
What about PCRs?
While RATs are an invaluable tool, they are not always the most accurate way to test for COVID. Rapid COVID tests can yield false negatives, which may lead people to mistakenly believe they are not contagious. PCR tests, which are more sensitive, are far better at detecting the virus (even if you’re newly infected). Like RATs, however, PCR tests will also be removed from the required coverage list after May 11. Whether or not you get PCR coverage will depend on your insurer.
What about COVID vaccines and boosters?
As of now, COVID-19 vaccines are still free to everyone in the US, including those who are uninsured. After May 11, both vaccines and boosters should remain free with public and private insurance in most cases. COVID-19 vaccinations will also be fully covered for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
The federal government purchased a large supply of COVID-19 vaccines that’s expected to last through the summer of 2023. While this national supply lasts, COVID-19 vaccines will remain free to everyone, no matter their insurance situation. However, after the supply runs out, COVID vaccines are expected to shift to the private market. This means the vaccination process will become similar to getting a flu shot. Most forms of private health insurance, including all Affordable Care Act-compliant plans, will continue to pay for COVID-19 vaccines given by a health care provider in their network.
As for purchasing life-saving COVID treatments like Paxlovid, the new cost will again depend on individual health care coverage. These expenses may be similar to costs incurred for other traditional drugs and treatments.
Can I use expired COVID tests?
The shelf life of a RAT typically ranges from four to 24 months. So if you’ve still got some old COVID tests sitting around, that’s great — but check their expiration dates before use. When at-home COVID tests were first released, the shelf-life was estimated; but the expiration dates were extended if manufacturers were able to prove their tests were effective for a longer period of time.
The reagents in COVID tests that detect the virus grow weaker with time, so it’s possible to get a false negative result if you use a too-old test. However, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has extended the expiration dates for several over-the-counter COVID tests, so make sure yours hasn’t been extended before throwing a box with a past date away. Check the FDA’s website for a full list of approved COVID tests and their revised expiration dates. If you’re using a rapid antigen test, follow the CDC’s guidelines and test at least five days after exposure, plus test three times total, even if your first two tests are negative. (Take the first test after five days, the next test 48 hours after that, and the last one 48 hours after that.)
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