COVID-19 and influenza cases are on the rise, but many people face obstacles to getting tested and treated.
Having to travel to a testing site or to a pharmacy to purchase a test kit when feeling sick often deters people from getting the health care they need.
But eligible Americans can now receive dual influenza and COVID-19 tests as well as free telehealth and treatment options, thanks to an expansion of the federal government’s Home Test to Treat program.
“When you have to leave your home and disrupt your life to get a test, that’s a massive barrier for many people to getting treatment,” Dr. Michael Mina, a former assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
The National Institutes of Health partnered with eMed, a digital health care company that provides at-home health care testing, to expand the program’s offerings to include Lucira, a combined flu and COVID test made by Pfizer — the first Food and Drug Administration-authorized test that can detect both viruses.
“Over the last few years, the world has focused exclusively on COVID, and last winter [people] ... were reminded that influenza existed,” said Mina, who is also the chief science officer at eMed. “The flu is still one of the most important pathogens to be concerned about, and it puts many people in the hospital every year.”
Eligible Americans can get two test kits by registering online. If they test positive, they can use their online portal to schedule a free telehealth appointment and receive free treatment if necessary, Mina said. If you test positive for COVID, treatment options include the prescription antivirals Paxlovid and Molnupiravir, and if you test positive for the flu, treatment options include Tamiflu and Xofluza.
Adult Americans who are negative for COVID, are uninsured or underinsured, on Medicare, Medicaid, in the Veterans Affairs health care system, or receive care from the Indian Health Services are eligible. Those who test positive before signing up may enroll to receive free telehealth care and treatment regardless of insurance status.
To use the test kit, Mina said, you will first swab your nose with the provided swabbing device just as you would for a traditional COVID test. Then, you place the swab in a tube filled with a purple solution that comes in the kit. Finally, you remove the swab from the solution and stick the tube onto the base of the device in the test kit by following the provided instructions.
The device will light up with an LED light within minutes if you are positive for COVID or the flu. If you are negative or the test is invalid, it will take up to 40 minutes to get your results back. If you test negative but are feeling symptomatic, Mina said to test again after two days.
In addition to expanding access to test kits and treatment, the program’s expansion also offers a solution to the challenge people are facing this cold and flu season of identifying whether they have COVID or if they have the flu.
After years of exposure to COVID, Mina said that people have a heightened immunity to the virus. For this reason, symptoms today are less severe than those of years past. Instead of experiencing difficulty breathing or losing the ability to taste and smell, in general, people who test positive for COVID have symptoms that are similar to those of a cold or the flu — runny nose, congestion, or a fever.
“It’s really hard to distinguish the flu from COVID from symptoms alone, especially now that we have immunity, so testing is a way doctors can decipher what options are on the table for treatment,” said Mina.
Both COVID and the flu can still be life threatening, however, “so having a discriminatory test right now that’s accessible to people in their homes is important,” Mina said.
“By giving people access to tests in their home, it allows them to really reduce the barriers to getting tests and treatment.”
Americans can also receive up to eight free COVID test kits, sent to their home, through the government website covidtests.gov. Massachusetts residents who test positive for COVID can set up a free telehealth visit and receive a prescription for Paxlovid by calling 833-450-3461 or by visiting the state’s website.