LOS ANGELES — Even with nearly 63% of Californians fully vaccinated, some public health officials worry that big gatherings this holiday season could lead to big outbreaks of COVID-19. But families looking to reunite have at least one infection-averting tool that they didn't have last year: rapid at-home testing kits.
The kits aren't foolproof, and most aren't as reliable as the lab-based alternative when it comes to detecting infections in their earliest stages. Also, the cost can be high if you have to check a houseful of people.
If used in the right circumstances, however, an at-home test can warn you in a matter of minutes if Cousin Antoine's cough or Aunt Maggie's muscle aches are signs of a potentially grave threat to the rest of the family. Even better, the tests can make it easy for your invited guests to check for an active infection before they trundle off to your home.
One other crucial caveat: If you haven't been fully vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions against traveling to that holiday get-together. And if you're determined to travel sans vaccination, the CDC recommends doing so only if you get a negative COVID test one to three days days before departure, then quarantining for seven days after arrival (or fewer, if you test negative again).
Here's a rundown of how the tests work, how reliable the results are, who makes them, where to find them and how much they cost.
What are at-home rapid COVID tests?
The key word here is "rapid," as in delivering results in about 15 minutes. Unlike the self-testing kits that you have to send to a lab for processing, the rapid kits let you process your samples at home — in fact, most of them let you watch the results slowly emerge on a test strip, the way you might watch an image form on a Polaroid (but with higher stakes).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given emergency-use authorization to two kinds of rapid tests: molecular and antigen. The molecular tests, which boast higher sensitivity but carry a higher cost, examine the genetic material in your sample for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The antigen tests look for the presence of a protein that binds to the coronavirus' RNA.
Only one of the three approved home molecular tests — the Lucira CHECK-IT kit — is easily found online, and it's pricy: Amazon sells it for $89 per test.
A quick search for antigen tests, on the other hand, found six of the nine approved tests available to U.S. consumers in stores or online, one from two different manufacturers: