Free rapid, antigen at-home COVID-19 tests from the U.S. government are starting to hit mailboxes in Michigan as some stores are preparing for — or possibly are already empty of — their allotment of free N95 masks, which also are being provided by federal officials.
One Free Press editor in Detroit received a box of four at-home COVID-19 tests Tuesday after ordering them online a week earlier at COVIDtests.gov.
Each U.S. household is eligible to order four free tests from the federal government in an effort to beef up the use of test kits amid this current pandemic surge fueled by the omicron variant, which has been making over-the-counter, at-home tests hard to find and causing long lines at testing sites.
Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said during a news briefing Wednesday that federal officials have seen a "strong demand" for the free tests, with an initial report on orders expected by the end of this week.
He said tens of millions of tests have gone out and are arriving or have arrived at people's mailboxes, with more Americans getting the free tests in the days and weeks ahead.
Michigan remains in the throes of the surge, with the state averaging about 13,712 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to state data.
'Very fast start'
At the same time, the federal government is starting to give out free adult N95 masks at various retailers across the country in a program launched last week to make 400 million N95 masks available to the public.
A Free Press reporter stopped at a Meijer store in Roseville on Wednesday morning to pick up masks, but was told they were already gone and to try another Meijer location or other retailers that were to receive the masks. An employee didn't know if that store would be getting more of the N95 masks.
Sonny Franks Miller, a Meijer corporate communications specialist, said each of its stores "received thousands of N95 masks and, depending on demand, some of our stores are moving through their supply more quickly than others, which is to be expected. We hope to obtain more supply in the future."
Meijer planned to have the masks at its stores across the Midwest. It received about 3 million masks, which were to be in boxes on a table near the greeter stand of the grocery entrance. The greeter was to place the masks in piles of three for customers to take, according to a release Monday.
Other stores in Michigan also are expected to receive free N95 masks from the federal government, including Walgreens, CVS and Kroger.
Walgreens said in a statement Tuesday on its corporate website that it would be making the masks, in varying sizes, available at participating locations while supplies last.
The first stores would begin offering masks Friday and will continue on a rolling basis in the days and weeks ahead. The company stated participating stores will have signage indicating mask availability and more details will be posted at walgreens.com.
CVS will be offering N95 masks at CVS Pharmacy stores and pharmacies inside Target and Schnucks department stores. Inventory is expected to begin arriving as early as Thursday and will continue on a rolling basis as additional supply becomes available, according to a statement from CVS Health emailed to the Free Press on Wednesday.
Masks are limited to three per person, while supplies last. Signs will be posted to indicate availability, according to the company.
Kroger is awaiting its distribution of masks from the Strategic National Stockpile and is prepared to make them available to the public as soon as it receives them, said Rachel Hurst, corporate affairs manager.
Zients said officials determined the fastest way to get masks out was through the channels used for vaccines — local pharmacies and community health centers.
"The program is off to a very fast start," he said, adding that the program will hit full strength across the next couple of weeks. "Americans will be able to pick up free masks ... at tens of thousands of convenient sites, including ... community health centers around the country and local pharmacies."
Using and storing free tests, masks
Now that you have the free tests and masks, you may wonder how you properly use and store them.
The tests can't withstand temperatures that are too hot or too cold, so removing them from your mailbox within a few hours — no more than 24 hours — during this bitter cold snap is important to eliminate concerns of the tests being inaccurate when used, said Dr. Asha Shajahan, a family medicine doctor with Beaumont Health.
You will likely be able to tell if there is a problem with the test if you receive an error message or do not see the control line, at which time you should call the phone number on the box for assistance, she said.
Shajahan said the tests should be stored between 36 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and that you should have the test sit at room temperature for at least two hours before using it if you brought it in from the cold or the heat in order to get more accurate results.
Tests should be stored away from children and pets as they may contain a toxic chemical that can be dangerous if it is swallowed or gets into someone's eyes. Once you are done with the test, don't put the contents down the drain, experts say. Instead, put the contents in a plastic bag and throw the bag in the trash.
Shajahan said if you receive a positive test, you should assume you have the virus and don't need to test again. If you receive a negative result and have symptoms, take another test the next day or get a PCR test to confirm.
If you only have the four tests and you have people in your household who are symptomatic and asymptomatic, test those with symptoms, she said.
Regarding N95 masks, which may be new to some people, Shajahan said they cannot be washed and may not last as long as other masks, but offer better protection.
She said if the masks get wet, dirty or don't have a good seal, they should be tossed. If you have to wear them for a 12-hour day, for example, the masks are good only for a day or two max.
But Shajahan said if you're wearing the masks for a short period of time to run in and out of a business, you can store them in a brown paper bag and away from other things. Put the dates you wore the mask on the bag.
"Don't stuff it in your purse or glove box," she said, adding not to hang the masks on the rear-view mirror or anywhere else so they don't get particulates on other things and they stay more sterile.
The same holds true for KN95 masks, she said, and people probably want to avoid wearing makeup if they're wearing the same mask over and over because that can trap bacteria.
And, she said, it's not a good idea to share masks.
"I would say keep your mask to yourself," she said.
Contact Christina Hall: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to the Free Press.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Free COVID-19 tests, N95 masks arriving in Michigan