BOB COLE AND HIS BROTHER TED STOOD BY THEIR FATHER MIKE’S BEDSIDE at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital as he was slipping away to Covid-19. They wore full personal protection equipment: gowns, double masks, face shields and even garbage bags. After returning home to his wife and three children and through his grief, a question nagged at him. Should he get tested?
In over nine months of the pandemic, Cole had never been tested before. He felt no need, having worked from home since March. He and his family followed shelter-in-place guidelines closely. “This was my first impulse to get tested,” says Cole.
After striking out at getting a slot at a public clinic, Cole tried a private lab but was told there were no appointments for a week. He and his wife searched for alternatives and discovered home test kits. Cole found out he could get a test at no cost through his health insurance plan with Cigna. He requested a test online.
The next morning, a box was on his doorstep delivered by FedEx. Inside was a vial, a biohazard bag, a swab in a pouch and instructions. He registered his test online, swabbed the inside of both nostrils, tucked the swab in the vial then sealed it all in the biohazard bag. He sent the box back right away. “It was super easy. I got the results online the next day,” Cole says. He was relieved to find out he was negative.
The test Cole received was the Pixel by LabCorp, a molecular test or a reverse polymerase chain reaction test known as RT-PCR (or just PCR). These tests detect the presence of the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. PCR tests can be used even if a person has no symptoms. Antigen tests, sometimes called rapid tests, detect specific proteins of the virus and are best if someone already is displaying Covid-19 symptoms.
There are now about 10 or so tests on the market with authorization by the Food and Drug Administration that are either PCR or antigen, all requiring a prescription. Some are covered by health insurance, some require a co-payment, and others are not covered. The cost starts at around $110 and run as high as $155. For now, consumers have to rely on the companies’ own research for accuracy – most report better than 90-percent accuracy.
Costco carries a couple of kits, and another is available through Safeway pharmacies. Others are available through insurance companies or directly from manufacturers’ websites. Only one test kit recently became available on Amazon: A saliva PCR test by a company called DxTerity based near Los Angeles. It costs $110 and promises results back within 24-72 hours.
Kits that are less expensive or don’t require shipping back and forth are coming on the market soon. An over-the-counter test called Ellume is expected to retail for around $30. It comes with a Bluetooth analyzer that transmits information to the company via smartphone app with results in 15 minutes. A PCR home test kit, the Lucira Covid-19 All-in-One, will provide results within 30 minutes. It’s expected to be available by late spring.