Widespread testing is one of the best ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and at-home tests could relieve some of the immense pressure on the healthcare system while making it easier for more people to get tested more quickly.
The United Kingdom government just announced that it had purchased 3.5 million tests that, after their efficacy is verified, will be distributed through Amazon and pharmacies. In the U.S., an Austin-based company called Everlywell that makes at-home tests for a variety of medical conditions, from food sensitivities to Lyme disease to chlamydia, is introducing its own at-home COVID-19 test that will cost $135.
After completing a screening questionnaire, qualified individuals can order a COVID-19 test that will be covered by participating HSA and FSA providers.
Healthcare providers can currently request bulk orders of the tests, but they are not yet available for individuals. And once they are, it won’t be quite as simple as an Amazon order or pharmacy visit to obtain one, as the current shortage means it’s important to prioritize the people for whom the test can do the most good.
“It is important to have this complementary approach for the diagnosis of COVID-19 to help lessen the burden of testing in the clinical setting and to keep potentially infected individuals from spreading the disease further in the public setting,” Frank Ong, Everlywell’s chief medical and scientific officer, told Inverse.
The test will be available only with a prescription from a telemedicine doctor working for PWN Health, a physician network enlisted by Everlywell for this purpose. An algorithm developed by Everlywell incorporating CDC guidelines will take patient responses to a series of doctor questions and decide whether or not a test is warranted.
“In the first few weeks, as we have limited capacity to test, we want to be very careful and want to give the test that we have, in limited quantities, to the ones that need it most,” Ong said. “If you have no symptoms or no exposure, we don’t want our resources to be wasted.”
On the other hand, if you report severe symptoms like bluish lips or chest pressure, the doctor will advise you to seek medical care immediately because the wait for results — by our calculations, up to a week from initial consultation to the completion of the test in the lab — might be too long.
If you do qualify, the test will arrive at your door within two days (or one with $30 overnight shipping). It’s simple enough to self-administer, with a swab to collect a sample from the back of one’s throat or nose and tubes for spit and sputum (a.k.a. phlegm). Then, all you have to do is ship the samples to one of the FDA-approved labs working with Everlywell using the included overnight prepaid overnight packaging.
Once the lab receives the samples, it tests them without 72 hours and sends the results to one of the physicians in the network. If you test positive, you’ll get an immediate phone call and a telehealth consultation with a physician who can advise on next steps. If you test negative, the results will be emailed or texted to you and a physician will follow up to discuss what else might be causing your symptoms.
The bottom line is that at-home testing is a positive development, but its impact will be limited until supply shortages abate and many more people can find out if they’ve been infected.
“In order to flatten the infection rate curve, we need to be able to test people to know if they are positive or if they are affected by influenza AB or other conditions, so that we can start to contain this pandemic,” Ong said.