How and when Alaska health officials say you should use an at-home COVID-19 test

COVID-19 rates in Alaska are up and there are long lines at test sites once again, so there’s been a resurgence of interest in at-home tests.

Alaska health officials say in some cases, they can be a handy option, and they recommend keeping a few extras around. However, some come with higher rates of false negatives, and some may be in short supply right now.

The tests, including some available at local pharmacies and grocery stores and some online, can provide quick results at home or can be sent off to labs for results, depending on the type you purchase.

They range in price from $20 to $125 depending on the type, though insurance providers may be able to reimburse that cost in some cases.

Two of the at-home tests are verified through a telehealth meeting with a medical provider, while one test you conduct on your own.

At-home PCR tests, like the Pixel by LabCorp, involve swabbing yourself while overseen by a medical provider during a video call. Users then package up and send the sample into a lab for testing, said state pharmacist Dr. Coleman Cutchins.

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You can usually get results back in a couple of days, and Cutchins recommends them for people who are about to travel. The tests have verified results because they’re overseen by a telemedicine provider.

Additionally, rapid antigen at-home tests are available. Those also include a call with a health provider, who verifies results and watches while the test is completed. That is a second option for people who might need verified results, Cutchins said.

There are also the newer, rapid at-home tests like the Abbott BinaxNOW, which don’t require any sort of encounter with a medical provider. However, those tend to have a higher rate of false negatives than PCR tests, Cutchins said.

“The biggest limitation for those type of tests if you need a verified result, they don’t provide that,” Cutchins said.

The newer rapid tests are simple and easy to perform. The kits come with two tests, to be taken 36 to 48 hours apart if the first one comes back negative, because the over-the-counter tests do have a higher rate of false negatives.

Users take the nasal swab and swirl it around their nostrils before placing the swab into a testing solution. In 10 to 30 minutes the test will show two lines for a positive result, and one line for a negative.

If both return negative results, Cutchins said there’s roughly an 85% chance the person being tested does not have COVID-19. If either are positive, then that person has COVID-19.

But if you are showing symptoms or have a known exposure to the virus, Cutchins said you should follow up a negative antigen test with a PCR test at a municipal drive-through site.

Cutchins said the rapid tests are helpful to have around the house, especially if you need a test regularly or have children in school. They might be good to use before seeking further advice from a medical provider, he said.

But right now, you might have trouble actually getting your hands on an at-home rapid test.

“A month ago, we could have bought these things by the truckload,” Cutchins said.

Back then, state health officials were concerned that they might have to throw out the state’s stock of the tests because they were about to expire, he said.

Then came a massive surge of cases propelled by the hyper-transmissible delta variant. Cutchins noted producers of the tests are trying to scale up manufacturing and said he expects the tests to be available soon.

Some local stores reported delays and shortages in at-home testing supplies, though several Walgreens in Anchorage last week did show online that the tests were in stock for pickup.

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In addition to at-home tests, Christy Lawton, Anchorage’s municipal public health director, recommended the Alaska Airlines Center, the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Muldoon Community Assembly and Eagle River sites as spots where wait times tend to be shorter.

And unlike at-home tests, they’re free.

The city’s website also shows when sites are the busiest, and if possible, you can plan around that, Lawton said.

But given how widespread transmission is, Lawton recommended purchasing a few extra testing kits just in case someone gets sick.

”That is a good alternative where you can have control of it right there and you don’t even have to leave your house,” Lawton said.