Are At-Home COVID Tests Actually Accurate? We Asked a Doctor3 min read
Nearly two years into the pandemic, many of us have taken at least one COVID test. Maybe it was at your doctor’s office or a local CVS or even a tiny kiosk on the street in your neighborhood. But what about at-home COVID tests? Are they as accurate as the ones administered by professionals? Are there certain things to look for when choosing an at-home test? We reached out to Michael Blaivas, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Anavasi Diagnostics, for answers to all of our at-home COVID test questions.
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1. Do at-home COVID tests actually work?
Yes and no. Dr. Blaivas tells explains that the at-home tests that are currently available are designed to be simpler to use than big laboratory tests and therefore often use different methods to identify evidence of infection. “These compromises in test design usually result in tests that are less accurate than the typical PCR or other molecular test that you might receive in a medical setting,” he says. “While you could say that the currently available at-home tests ‘work,’ they have limitations.” For example, he notes that you might end up having to verify a positive at-home test with a PCR laboratory test just to make sure the result you got at home is correct.
2. Is there anything someone planning on administering an at-home test should know about the right or wrong ways to do it?
“At-home test administration requires a heightened level of precision to ensure you get the right result,” Dr Blaivas notes. “Most of these at-home tests depend on the user following the instructions perfectly, which requires reading the instructions at least once before using the test.” He explains that it’s crucial for the user to read the detailed instructions for any hints or cautions. “When the user actually performs the test, they should follow each instruction step carefully, especially when taking the sample required for the test.” This is definitely not the time to just wing it.
3. Are there any specific brands or types of tests that you, as a doctor, recommend?
Dr. Blaivas tells us, “The most accurate tests are PCR or other molecular-type tests,” while recognizing that for any at-home testing, the consumer should still worry a lot about accuracy. These PCR or molecular-type test will be closest in accuracy to the big hospital laboratory test, he says, adding that consumers should look at the sensitivity and specificity claimed by a test that is cleared by the FDA. “Some test boxes may say something like ‘highly accurate,’ but they may not perform much better than a coin flip in determining whether you are infected with COVID or not.”
4.When should a fully vaccinated person get tested/test themselves for COVID? If they’ve been in contact with a positive case? If they’re showing symptoms?
“We now know that fully vaccinated individuals can still get infected with COVID, but they will typically have milder symptoms than their non-vaccinated counterparts,” Dr. Blaivas says. “If you are vaccinated and do contract COVID, you can also still infect other people—even if you don’t recognize any symptoms.” He recommends that you get tested after exposure with a confirmed COVID-positive individual, as well as if you have symptoms that are consistent with COIVD-19 infection. “It’s a good idea to test so that you do not unwittingly infect people around you,” he adds.
5. If you take an at-home test and it’s positive, what should your next steps be?
So you decided to take an at-home test and it came back positive. What’s next? Dr. Blaivas says, “If you test positive with an at-home antigen test, the CDC recommends that you confirm this result by getting a PCR or other molecular test, such as those performed in a large hospital-based laboratory.” But, if you performed a PCR or other molecular test at home, you likely do not need to get a follow-up test, since those—as noted above—are typically the most accurate at-home options. “Obviously, in either case, you should notify your doctor and or seek medical assessment and take precautions to avoid infecting anyone else,” he tells us.
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