Can’t. Stop. Self-Swabbing.
At-home Covid tests are providing (occasionally obsessive) assurance ahead of dates, baby visits and weddings.,
Can’t. Stop. Self-Swabbing.
At-home Covid tests are providing (occasionally obsessive) assurance ahead of dates, baby visits and weddings.
By Alyson Krueger
When Matt Reardon noticed a certain bachelor party favor disappearing, one that “definitely added to the fun of the weekend,” he took note.
It was the end of August, and about a dozen guys had gathered for the weekend at Camp Getaway, an adult summer camp in Kent, Conn. They were sharing three cabins equipped with twin-size beds. On a table were the party supplies they brought: beer, champagne, hard liquor, chips and candy.
There was also another type of swag, the one that guests, including Mr. Reardon, were making their way through: a stack of over-the-counter, at-home Covid-19 tests.
“It alleviated any concern over where these people had been,” said Mr. Reardon, 33; guests had traveled to the party from New York City, Boston and parts of California, and were testing themselves upon arrival. “We could all relax a little more.” (Camp Getaway requires proof of vaccination or a P.C.R. Covid test that had been completed in 72 hours or a rapid test done on-site for a fee.)
Americans across the country have discovered the value of at-home rapid Covid tests. The tests are more convenient than those that require booking an appointment at a testing facility, cost about $25 or less for two and are available online and in stores like CVS or Walmart. After you swab your nose and place the stick in a solution, a line appears if you are positive, similar to a pregnancy test. Results typically appear in no longer than 15 minutes.
They can still be hard to find, however, and as with toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic, hoarding is strongly discouraged. Additionally, the cost is still prohibitive for many Americans to use them regularly. The Biden administration is working to make these tests cheaper and more accessible.
But the at-home tests provide so much assurance that people are using them for a variety of social purposes — and often. Dates are swabbing themselves before hooking up. Party hosts are testing guests at the door. And new moms are swabbing anybody who wants to come over to meet their baby.
Doctors approve. These at-home tests, most of which use a similar technology to the rapid Covid tests used in many medical clinics, are ideal for these purposes, said Dr. Michael J. Mina, an immunologist and professor of epidemiology at Harvard. “If you want to know, ‘Am I infectious? Is my kid infectious? Am I a risk to others right now?,’ these tests are extremely reliable,” he said.
While P.C.R. tests can detect even smaller amounts of coronavirus (they also remain positive long after someone is not a threat to others), rapid tests are still highly sensitive and usually detect anyone with enough viral load in them to be a threat to others.
“For those who are the greatest risk, the people we care most about detecting, rapid tests are extremely, extremely sensitive,” said Dr. Mina, who is on the medical board of 4 Catalyzer, a company that is developing a rapid molecular Covid test (a process distinct from an antigen test). “If I am at risk of going into a bar and infecting 20 people, these tests are almost 100 percent. It is almost perfect for finding the people who are the greatest risk to others.”
For many users, at-home Covid tests give them peace of mind.
Erin Zuckerman, 35, who works in wealth management and lives in Jersey City, asks every family member or friend to take a rapid test when they visit. “We have an 8-month-old baby who isn’t vaccinated,” she said. “I can’t let my guard down.”
She has a routine. When anyone steps foot in her apartment, whether it’s her sister there to babysit or friends coming over for a dinner party, she hands them a test kit to take to the bathroom. She exposes her child only to people who are vaccinated, and even still, they have to keep their masks on until the results come back negative. “It’s anxiety inducing every time,” she said. “I find it worse than a pregnancy test to wait to see if that line comes.”
Supply issues aside, there is no such thing as taking too many Covid tests, according to Dr. Mina. “If everyone was doing it, it would be a major win for the population at large,” he said.
The only downside is these tests have a small rate of false positives, so the more you test, the more likely you are to encounter one. The Abbott BinaxNOW test, for example, has a 0.1 percent false positive rate, according to one study, which means if you test yourself 1,000 times, one result might come as a false positive (still, it could take years for that to happen).
Dr. Mina said, according to another study, Quidel QuickVue tests have a false positivity rate of 0.8 percent, or 1 in 125. (Abbott wouldn’t comment on outside studies of their test. Quidel did not respond to a request for comment.)
He encourages anybody who gets a positive result that seems strange — you have no symptoms and no known exposure — to take another test, ideally with another brand. “The chance of getting two false positives is so low that if one test comes back negative, you can trust it,” he said. “If you test positive twice, you have Covid.”
Of course, the shortages of kits can prove frustrating to customers who can’t find them.
Angela Clayton, 53, who owns a housecleaning franchise in Phoenix, tried to find a kit after being exposed to Covid at a funeral. “I went to probably half a dozen places: CVS, Kroger, our grocery chain. I was looking everywhere,” she said. “They had all these empty shelves where they were supposed to be, and when I asked the pharmacists if they had boxes in the back, they said: We haven’t had them for days.”
Todd Brady, 38, a software engineer in Ankeny, Iowa, even created an online tool where, among other things, Iowans can see where there are at-home tests in stock. Over 15,000 people have used the site since it went online in September. He said he lives in a place with no mask mandates, and the state closed its five drive-in testing facilities in July, replacing them with mailed tests, which can take a few days to arrive. Which is why “we need at-home tests” that can be purchased on short notice, he said.
Dave Cutler, 44, a freelance writer who lives in Waltham, Mass., has been stocking up on at-home tests for his son’s bar mitzvah in December. “We are going to have a small gathering, definitely under 50 people, but we still want to ask folks to take a test,” he said; guests will also be required to be vaccinated. He’s been placing orders on CVS.com and Walgreens.com and looking out for them whenever he goes to a pharmacy.
“If I see a couple I will grab them,” he said. “I have even started telling friends, if you see them, get them, and I will reimburse you.”
The major pharmacies are feeling the hit and acting accordingly. “Due to the incredible demand for at-home testing, we have put in effect purchase limits on at-home Covid-19 testing products in our stores in an effort to help improve inventory,” Emily Mekstan, a spokeswoman for Walgreens, wrote in an email, adding that the limit is four tests.
With many parties and events requiring negative Covid tests for admittance, especially in New York City, self-tests have become a way to gain entry to an exclusive event.
In September, Cara Roberts, who works in advertising and marketing, was trying to go to a party aboard a new cruise ship by Virgin Voyages when it was docked in Manhattan. Attendees who were invited had to show proof of vaccination as well as a negative Covid test taken within 48 hours. She had spent the entire Saturday of the party going to various testing sites, but none had availability (even CityMD had closed early, for a staff appreciation day).
“I went to three different places and called a bunch, and many were closing at 2 p.m. or had no appointments,” said Ms. Roberts, 36. “It was so frustrating. It felt like this massive barrier.” When she was texting her friends to find out if they had had any luck, one of the women said she had a stash of at-home rapid tests. Her friend threw them in her purse and handed them out to her friend group to use in front of the health station at the party.
“It was so funny to rock up to a party with a bag of Covid tests,” Ms. Roberts said. “We definitely took a few selfies with them.”