At-Home Rapid COVID-19 Tests Can Make Holiday Gatherings Safer

One of the safest ways to socialize with friends and family during the holiday celebrations is to take a rapid antigen COVID-19 test before any gathering. Experts say that taking a test each morning you plan to spend time with people outside your household provides an excellent layer of protection.

According to The New York Times, the U.S. has not made at-home testing a priority as it is in other countries. In Britain, pharmacies offer free packs of seven tests and most rapid tests are also free of charge in Germany. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been slow in approving rapid tests, so until recently they have been difficult to obtain, according to research.

And the tests are not free. At-home COVID-19 tests typically cost about $25 for a pack of two, and because of their price and scarcity, experts say Americans must make smart choices on how and when to use them.

“Rapid tests can help reduce worries about gathering with loved ones for the holidays,” epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo told the Times. The rapid antigen tests accurately spot infections and are a powerful public health tool.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said that at-home COVID-19 tests are “one of the best tools we have” to stay safe during the pandemic. Gupta points out that even fully vaccinated people may carry the virus and not know it so taking a rapid antigen test can tell you if you are contagious.

The most available tests seem to be BinaxNOW from Abbott, followed by QuickVue, Ellume, and Flowflex, says the Times. Both CVS and Walgreens have search engines to help you obtain rapid COVID-19 test kits. If you do manage to purchase a kit, read the instructions carefully, say experts.

“It is critically important that you carefully read any instructions for the type of test you are taking, and follow them to the letter,” warns Dr. Karl Laskowski, an internist affiliated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Antigen tests resemble pregnancy tests, say Yale Medicine experts. They work by detecting pieces of protein from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19. After a sample specimen is obtained from the nose, or sometimes the throat, it is placed on a test strip or cartridge that’s been treated with a reagent. A colored line will indicate the results.

The results should appear within 15 minutes, and while these rapid tests can give both false negative and false positive readings, they can identify about 98% of cases. If you do test positive, quarantine until you are able to take the more reliable PCR test, says the Times. If your rapid test shows a negative result, and you are vaccinated, you are probably okay to attend your holiday events.

To get the most bang for your buck, take the test after you think you have been exposed to the virus, and before you may be spending time with people who are elderly or have underlying medical issues. If you are attending more than one gathering this weekend, save your rapid testing for the events that will have the most vulnerable people present.

Thankfully, the FDA approved three more over-the-counter rapid tests for people over the age of 14, so the availability of these powerful testing tools should improve in the months to come.

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