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COVID-19 testing: What you need to know about at-home test kits, testing locations

At-home test kits are currently hard to find, making drive-thru and tests by appointment the easiest options at this time.

CLEVELAND — Health leaders in Ohio and across the nation are encouraging residents to take COVID-related precautions as the holidays come to a close. 

“In addition to getting vaccinated against COVID and flu, if you’re planning to gather in the coming weeks you might also consider getting tested before going to that holiday gathering," advises Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.

Of course, if you have symptoms or had a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, you should be tested, regardless of your vaccination status.  

So what do you need to know if you haven't yet taken a COVID-19 test? First off, decide whether you prefer to get an over-the-counter rapid test and do it yourself, or have it done by a professional. However, it is important to note that at-home tests are widely unavailable at this time. 

If I want to go out and have a test done for me, where can I go?

Some people may prefer having a professional handle the test as opposed to doing it themselves. There are many COVID-19 testing sites throughout Ohio, with a combination of private companies, retail sites, community health centers, urgent care center, and other local partners offering access.

The Ohio Department of Health has provided a page listing all of the state's testing locations that you can pinpoint by county/zip code. Click here for more.

Keep in mind that many places require an appointment to get a COVID-19 test done, so call ahead to make sure a test is available. 

In Northeast Ohio, there are currently several mass testing sites available for those looking to receive a PCR test. 

However, if you want to get your own at-home test, here's what you need to know:

What are the types of tests available to me?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized two types of COVID-19 tests that can be performed. 

The molecular test, known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, is considered the most accurate, according to the Ohio Department of Health. However, an at-home PCR test requires a person to take a sample, mail it to a lab to be tested and wait several days for the results. It is also more expensive than the other testing option. 

The other type of at-home test is an antigen rapid test. In addition to being much less expensive than PCR testing, the turnround time is usually somewhere between 15-60 minutes, depending on the platform. While the antigen tests are considered accurate, they are less reliable than PCR testing, according to Cleveland Clinic.

What brands of over-the-counter rapid tests should I look for?

The FDA has a list of authorized at-home tests on its website.

However, in October, our VERIFY team looked at the reliability of three brands of antigen at-home rapid tests.

One of the authorized at-home tests, the QuickVue At-Home OTC COVID-19 Test, gave a correct positive result 83% of the time compared to a PCR test and a correct negative result 99% of the time, according to a clinical study submitted to the FDA. The CareStart COVID-19 Antigen Home Test correctly provided a positive result at least 87% of the time and a correct negative result at least 98% of the time in a clinical study. The Flowflex COVID-19 Antigen Home Test, which the FDA authorized for emergency use on Oct. 4, gave a correct positive result 93% of the time and a correct negative result 100% of the time in a clinical study.

The FDA says most at-home antigen tests are authorized for serial testing – meaning a person gets tested more than once over the span of a few days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says this testing strategy helps ensure test results are accurate.

Where can I find an at-home test?

Self-tests can be purchased online or in most pharmacies and retail stores when stock is available. They are also available for free through some local health departments or Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC).  

The state of Ohio partnered with the Ohio Library Council earlier this year to make free rapid at-home testing available. Using the Ohio Department of Health's list of all COVID-19 testing locations, you can narrow down your search for free rapid tests at library/local partner locations by clicking the ‘Rapid Test - At Home Tests’ tab.

Make sure you contact your local library or pharmacy to make sure they still have tests in stock. On December 16, Cleveland Public Library reported that they are out of tests after distributing more than 13,000 so far. Lorain Public Library adds that their supply is also running out. 

Editor's note: at-home COVID-19 tests are currently difficult to locate in Northeast Ohio. We recommend calling a facility beforehand to make sure that they have available kits. 

RELATED: What to look for as COVID-19 testing demands rise

How do the self-tests work?

The collecting of specimens for an at-home COVID-19 test varies, depending on platform. Some use nasopharyngeal swabs, some use anterior nasal swabs, some use saliva.

Once collected, use the specimen as described in the instructions to complete the self-test.

The CDC has put together the below video to assist you as you perform your at-home rapid COVID-19 test.

Important guidelines from the CDC

If you decide to do a self-test, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided the following guidelines to remember:

  • Make sure the test you purchased has emergency use authorization from the FDA. This should be clearly marked on the box.
  • Check the expiration date, also printed on the box, and make sure the test has not expired.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Open the box and follow the instructions included with the self-test to collect your own nasal or saliva specimen.
  • Follow the instructions exactly and perform the steps in the order that they are listed.
  • After you have the results, discard the specimen collection swab or tube and test in the trash, clean all surfaces that the specimen may have touched, and wash your hands.
  • If you test positive, you should stay home or isolate for 10 days and wear a mask if others could have contact with you. Also, tell a healthcare provider about your positive test result and stay in contact with them.
  • If your test kit recommends serial testing, follow instructions for when to perform the second test.

Editor's Note: Nate Hanson and Mauricio Chamberlin from TEGNA's VERIFY team contributed to this report.

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