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US: Free COVID-19 tests: What you need to know to order tests or get reimbursed

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Hundreds of thousands of Americans on Tuesday flocked to the federal website, COVIDTests.gov, which allows consumers to request free COVID-19 testing kits.

White House officials said the beta launch was designed to gauge its early-stage rollout. The official launch will come mid-morning Wednesday and allow Americans to order four kits per address, to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

The free tests anchor the Biden administration's testing reset as long lines and home test shortages have made it difficult for Americans to get checked for the highly contagious omicron variant that has ripped across the nation.

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The federal government has purchased 500 million home tests to be mailed to households so people can test themselves at home without a lab. The administration expects to double the initial order for a total of one billion tests.

But the federally distributed tests are only part of the administration's effort to address long-standing testing shortages that have slowed the nation's response since the beginning of the pandemic. Consumers can also purchase home tests online or at a retailer and be reimbursed by their insurance company. The Biden administration also has asked insurers to make it easier for consumers to pick up a free home test through retail sites or pharmacies.

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The home tests are meant to supplement the more conventional lab tests consumers get at testing sites, clinics or hospitals.

An average of about 2.9 million Americans got tested each day for COVID-19 over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University's testing tracker. About one in four tests were positive — an indication of how prevalent the virus remains nationwide, even as case counts and hospitalizations drop in states that first hit by the omicron surge.

The test-ordering website attracted more than 700,000 visitors at one time on Tuesday afternoon — far more visits than any other federal website, according to analytics.usa.gov.

Some say the test-order website is a temporary reprieve and consumers who reach their four-test limit will turn to their insurance companies to fill the gap, even as retail test shortages persist and insurance companies scramble to meet the mandate.

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How do I get my free COVID test?

The COVIDTests.gov website on Tuesday began processing a limited number of test orders. When consumers order the tests on the website, they are asked to input their name and shipping address.

The website says there are "tests for every residential address in the U.S. Please check back tomorrow if you run into any unexpected issues."

One potential glitch emerged Tuesday. Residents of condo and apartment buildings with a single address but multiple units said their orders were rejected, according to social media posts.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration can't guarantee "there won't be a bug or two" but said the tech teams across the administration and postal service are working on the launch.

Officials said tests, once ordered, would mailed within seven to 12 days.

Can I purchase my own tests?

Another new program requires health plans to cover the cost of COVID-19 home tests sold at retailers or online up to $12 per test.

Consumers can either purchase the testing kits at no cost through their insurer or buy kits from a retailer and submit receipts to get reimbursed by their insurance company.

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President Joe Biden announced the initiative in December and unveiled policy details earlier this month. Beginning Saturday, insurers were required to cover up to eight home tests each month for each consumer covered by the plan.

Yet insurers and consumers are still figuring out details in what some warn could be a bumpy road for consumers.

The Biden administration has encouraged insurers to establish preferred places, such as a pharmacy, where consumers can pick up the home tests without charge. Insurers also must reimburse consumers who buy their own tests up to $12 per test. Some test kits cost more, so consumers could have some out-of-pocket costs.

A bigger challenge might be finding tests. The program has launched amid a persistent shortage of available tests at stores and retailers even as manufacturers seek to ramp up supplies.

"It is just hard to see how this is going to go smoothly," said Ceci Connolly, president and CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans.

In addition to the nationwide test shortage, some smaller health insurance plans are scrambling to partner with pharmacies or retailers.

"Even with the best of intentions and a lot of resources being dedicated to this, they are having enormous difficulty providing COVID test kits to many Americans," Connolly said. "There will not be enough (testing), and so we really worry that health plans will get a lot of the angry, frustrated, upset calls and complaints when they have no solution."

Briefing in brief: Free COVID-19 test site in testing phase before launch Wednesday

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Do home tests provide accurate results?

Home tests are appealing because they don't need a lab and typically deliver results in about 15 minutes. These antigen tests detect proteins found on the surface of the coronavirus, Laboratory-based PCR tests detect a virus's genetic material, are more expensive and take longer to process.

While lab tests are more sensitive and can detect traces of the virus over a longer period, advocates of antigen tests said the kits can more quickly alert someone who is infectious and at risk of passing the virus to others.

David Walt, a Harvard Medical School professor of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said rapid antigen tests are useful but people should also be aware of limitations and should consider the likelihood the test results are correct.

If someone is exposed to COVID and has symptoms but tests negative using a rapid antigen test, the person should repeat the test within two days, However, if the same person tests positive, they should believe the results and isolate, Walt said.

The Food and Drug Administrations has granted emergency use authorizations for one dozen antigen home tests. Most of those kits contain two tests with instructions to repeat the tests, usually over about two days. The FDA said it continues to monitor how well these tests detect omicron.

"You absolutely can use these tests effectively if you know your pre-test probability," Walt said.

Maureen Groppe contributed.

Ken Alltucker is on Twitter at @kalltucker, or email at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Free COVID-19 tests: What you need to know to order tests or get reimbursed

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