With the federal government set to stop offering free at-home COVID-19 tests this Friday, you should take a few minutes today to order the handful of kits the US Postal Service is holding for you.
Every residential address in the US, Puerto Rico and other US territories, as well as those linked to overseas military and diplomatic personnel, can request free rapid antigen tests from the USPS, and you won’t be able to order any after this week unless Congress approves money for more tests. Although the Biden administration limited the initial January and subsequent mid-March orders to four tests, it has upped the latest batch to eight. You can order no matter how many tests you’ve received previously.
How to order free at-home COVID tests
Placing your order for tests is easy: Go to the special USPS website, enter your name, provide your shipping address (even if it’s a residential P.O. box), and hit Check Out Now under the order summary that confirms the delivery is entirely free. You can also provide an email address if you want to get shipment notifications, but you don’t have to. The tests will come in two packages of four, each with its own tracking number.
Those living in multi-family, co-living, or other shared living spaces can order more than the two sets of tests as long as the USPS knows the address houses multiple unrelated families, but may be unable to if the government doesn’t know several families live there. If that happens, you can file a service request or call the USPS help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS to try to get it fixed.
If you need help placing an order, you can call 1-800-232-0233 any day between 8 a.m. and midnight Eastern Standard Time for assistance in English, Spanish, and more than 150 other languages. There’s also a teletype (TTY) or text telephone number at 1-888-720-7489 and the aforementioned USPS help desk.
People with disabilities can call the disability information and access line at 1-888-677-1199 between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday, or email DIAL@usaginganddisability.org.
When to expect delivery
Initially, shipment was fairly slow—I placed my first order on January 19 but didn’t get a shipment notification until February 25 (they arrived that day). Now, shipment should be faster—the White House said in May that the USPS delivered most tests within 48 hours.
All tests sent to continental US addresses will ship with First Class Package Service, and all other addresses will get them via Priority Mail, both of which have a typical delivery time of one to three days. Still, the USPS website says tests may take as long as 12 days to arrive.
If you provide an email address when you order, you will get shipping notifications and can track the package on the USPS website. You can’t pick the tests up anywhere, even your local post office—they will always come to the address you provided, the agency says.
When to take a test
When you receive your tests, the package will display an expiration date, but if you got CareStart’s home antigen tests (you can’t choose which manufacturer’s tests you receive), these are good for three months after the date on the box, the USPS says. This follows a Food and Drug Administration decision granting manufacturer Access Bio’s request to update the tests’ shelf life to nine months when stored between 1 and 30 degrees Celsius (34 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit). The FDA said the information provided per Access Bio’s ongoing studies supported the request. If you have a kit from another brand (or brands), you can use an FDA database to check if your tests are expired.
As long as your tests haven’t expired, the government recommends you take them if you begin having COVID symptoms like a fever, sore throat, runny nose, or loss of taste or smell; at least five days after you are in close contact with someone who has since tested positive for COVID; or before you gather with a group, especially if that group includes people at risk of severe disease or who aren’t up to date on their vaccinations (keep in mind that you may not know who’s at risk, either).
How to take a rapid antigen test
Each test kit comes with directions for how to use it, and they all involve swabbing the inside of your nose. You should get results within 30 minutes and you won’t have to leave your home. If you don’t follow the instructions, the result could be wrong. For visual learners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a how-to video, and it also has one for people who use American Sign Language.
How to interpret COVID test results
Your test will also tell you how to interpret the results, and what to do afterward, but if you test positive you very likely have COVID. You should follow the CDC’s latest guidance, which suggests you isolate for at least five days, even from people in your home. You may also want to talk to your doctor, and definitely should if you have a weakened immune system, other health conditions like cancer and diabetes, or increased risk due to a factor like smoking or obesity, the government says.
If the results come out negative, the test didn’t find COVID in your body, and you might have a lower risk of spreading the disease. It’s worth noting that these at-home antigen tests generally aren’t as accurate as PCR tests, for example, which are processed by laboratories. So if you think you got a false negative, the government suggests testing again within a few days, leaving at least 24 hours between tests.
This story was originally published on March 19, 2022.