Editorials, Opinion

At-home tests an important tool, but …

We’re taking a break from the politics that rule our daily editorials to talk about the other thing that dominates the headlines: COVID-19.

Starting Jan. 15 and Jan. 19, respectively, President Biden and his administration ordered insurance companies to cover eight at-home COVID tests per covered individual per month and to make four free at-home tests available.

If you have private insurance, you’ll need to refer to your provider for the exact guidelines for getting your eight “free” tests. Some insurance companies may pay for the tests up front. Others may require you to pay out-of-pocket, then request reimbursement.

As for the free tests from the government, you can order those at COVIDtests.gov. Please note that you can only make one order per address.

Testing is one of the most important tools we have in our arsenal against COVID, along with vaccines and masks. The earlier you can determine you are sick, the less likely you are to expose and infect others.

The problem with at-home tests, however, is the potential for   undercounting. We already know that COVID cases and related deaths are undercounted: In Cape Girardeau County, Mo., the coroner didn’t pronounce a single COVID-related death in 2021, instead attributing deaths to heart attacks, Alzheimer’s and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease without ever doing a COVID test on the deceased. In Michigan, a state-led investigation into long-term care facility deaths is said to reveal that COVID-related deaths were under-reported by 30%, according to The Detroit News.

This penchant toward underreporting COVID deaths fuels our concern that at-home tests will lead to underreporting COVID cases.

As the Monongalia County Health Department says on its website: “Individuals who take a home COVID-19 test and get a positive result should report it … by calling 304-598-5100.” You should also follow up with a PCR test, such as the ones you can get at the WVU Rec Center or at a pharmacy drive-through.

But just because people should alert the health department to a positive at-home rapid test and should get a PCR test (which gets reported automatically) doesn’t mean they will. And having an accurate COVID case count is vital to controlling community spread.

This means at-home tests are a mixed bag. There’s a lot of good they can do: immediately notify you that you might be ill, so you can isolate and tell close contacts; give you the COVID-negative proof you need to travel; give you peace of mind if you plan to gather with others or if you recently had a get-together; or  give you a better idea if that cough and sniffle are COVID or just a cold.

But at-home COVID tests shouldn’t become the definitive diagnosis. People who think they are COVID positive — including if they had a negative rapid test but have persistent symptoms — need to get a more accurate PCR test, and they need to make sure their positive result is reported to the health department. Keeping accurate records is one of the most important ways we help contain COVID.