American households can now order free, at-home COVID-19 tests - which many across the Chattanooga region have struggled to find amid the current omicron surge - online through a new federal website that launched Tuesday.
The website is part of the Biden administration's efforts to expand access to at-home COVID-19 testing, with the first tests set to ship and arrive at residences across the nation before the end of the month.
A fact sheet about the program on the White House website states that starting Jan. 19, Americans will be able to order a test online at COVIDTests.gov. The Times Free Press tested the website Tuesday and found that it was already live with a notice at the top stating that it was "up and running early to help prepare for the full launch.
"We have tests for every residential address in the U.S. Please check back tomorrow if you run into any unexpected issues," the notice states.
On the website, clicking a link to "order free at-home tests" directs users to a section of the U.S. Postal Service website, USPS.com, where test seekers can enter their name and shipping address into an online form to order a kit of rapid antigen tests. Users have the option of including an email address that enables them to track shipping, which the website states will usually occur within seven to 12 days of placing an order.
Each residential household in the U.S. is limited to ordering a single kit, which contains four tests.
While improved access to rapid COVID-19 testing is much needed across the Chattanooga region, those who need a test now may be out of luck as the highly contagious omicron variant shows no sign of slowing.
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Though the most recent case count reports from the Hamilton County Health Department show a slight decline in new cases, weekly averages for new cases remain at their highest of the pandemic thus far. Other signs point to many more positive cases going unreported and a need for more testing options overall.
On Friday, the health department distributed 1,000 at-home antigen test kits within an hour of announcing the kits were available while supplies last, according to an email from spokesman Holden Young.
Want to order a free COVID-19 test kit?
Visit COVIDTests.gov and click on the “Order Free At-Home Tests” link.Once the website loads, enter your name (and email address if you wish to receive shipping notifications) and shipping address.Click the “Check Out Now” link to complete your order.
"Additional test kits are on order, and we will alert the public via social media, health department website and our newsletter when they arrive," Young said.
Many pharmacies have reported problems getting enough supply of rapid COVID-19 tests in the weeks leading up to the federal government's rollout of its free mail-order testing program.
Jacob Standefer, a pharmacist and CEO of Access Pharmacy in Hixson, said he has struggled to keep adequate supplies of rapid COVID-19 tests, although he said Monday the store was able to restock after running out last week.
"It's definitely more expensive and harder for us to get in the last few weeks ever since the Biden administration started buying up these tests," Standefer said. "We still have a lot of people coming in getting rapid tests, but the challenge now for us is to get enough supply."
Jill Fikkert, nursing director of LifeSpring Community Health - one of the few Chattanooga-area providers continuing to offer free community COVID-19 testing - said LifeSpring's test positivity rate is the highest it's ever been.
LifeSpring offers community testing for two hours each Monday and Friday. On Friday, 42% of those tested were positive, and one day the week before saw 48% of tests return positive. Results from this week's Monday testing event have not yet returned.
Athena Esoterix is one of the other few community testing providers. Technical Director Elizabeth Forrester said Tuesday via text message that the lab, which processes around 400 to 500 COVID-19 tests from the Chattanooga region per day, saw a daily positivity rate of 52%.
LifeSpring has tested 455 people so far in January - up significantly from November and December - but still not near as many people as the peak of the delta surge.
"I'm honestly curious as to where people are getting tested, and I suspect a lot of people are doing home tests," Fikkert said. "I sort of think that if we were open five days a week, we [would] probably have a steady stream of people five days a week - the number of places that you can go to simply be tested are dwindling."
Public health officials have said that at-home tests are rarely reported to local health departments, making it difficult to assess the true burden of disease and test positivity rate.
Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said in December that the rise in at-home testing was one reason why the state would stop reporting daily case counts and would exclude rapid antigen test reports from its percent positive calculations.
The state now bases its test positivity rate calculations on the "gold standard" molecular tests that detect the genetic material of the coronavirus, because labs and providers are required to report to public health agencies.
As of the latest report on Jan. 14, 38.7% of those tests in Tennessee were positive over the past week. Piercey said in December that at-home antigen test positivity rate most likely mirrors the rate of the molecular rest reports.
Higher percentages of positive tests indicate a more severe pandemic. In 2020, the World Health Organization recommended that the percent positive remain below 5% for at least two weeks before governments consider reopening.
Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.