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There's one more chance to get free COVID-19 tests by mail before the winter holiday season.
Starting Nov. 20, 2023, households in the U.S. can order another round of four rapid COVID-19 tests for free from the government. To order your free tests, go to COVIDTests.gov. They will then be delivered by mail via the United States Postal Service.
Now is the time to stock up on tests in preparation for possible winter surges in viral illnesses, public health officials urge.
"We do expect COVID, flu and RSV circulation to increase as we get deeper into fall and into winter," CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said on a Nov. 8 call with reporters. "Nationally, levels of respiratory illnesses are lower than what we saw at this time last year, so that's good news," Cohen said. "But we're starting to see activity go up."
Although COVID-19 hospitalizations have been declining for the past few weeks, those numbers have started to plateau and even increase in some areas of the country, she said. "While we're no longer in the emergency phase, COVID is still with us," Cohen added.
Flu and RSV cases have also started to pick up in the U.S., according to CDC estimates. Although overall numbers across the country remain low, “we are now seeing sustained increases across the country,” Alicia Budd, head of the domestic influenza surveillance team at the CDC, told NBC News.
“We expect that we’re going to continue to see many more weeks of increasing flu activity,” Budd said.
In addition to stocking up on COVID-19 tests, the public can get their flu vaccines and updated COVID-19 vaccines. This year, new RSV vaccines are also available for pregnant people and older adults. At least 17 million people in the U.S. have received the new COVID-19 vaccines as of early November, according to data from pharmacies, Cohen said.
Here's what else to know about how to get free COVID tests from the government.
Where to order free COVID tests from the government
As of Nov. 20, 2023, you can order another round of free COVID tests from the government through COVIDTests.gov. Each U.S. household can get four rapid, at-home COVID tests delivered by mail.
According to COVIDTests.gov, there are also a few other ways to get free COVID tests from the government for people without insurance or in underserved communities. To learn more about outreach programs providing free COVID tests through the government, contact a HRSA health center, Test to Treat site or ICATT location.
Do the free rapid tests detect new variants?
Yes, experts say, at-home rapid antigen tests like these still detect newer strains of the coronavirus.
“We have not seen any data to suggest (that the tests don’t work on new variants) yet,” Dr. Diana Cardona, a member of the College of American Pathologists Board of Governors, told TODAY.com previously.
“These tests will detect the currently circulating COVID-19 variants, are intended for use through the end of 2023, and will include clear instructions on how to verify extended expiration dates,” a press release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained.
Dr. Michael Mina, epidemiologist and COVID-19 testing expert, agreed that the at-home COVID tests should still detect cases caused by variants that emerged more recently, such as HV.1, EG.5 and BA.2.86.
“We’ve actually never seen a deterioration in accuracy of the tests, given any new variants,” he told NBC News. Even though the virus is mutating, those mutations don’t occur in the part of the virus that the rapid antigen test picks up, he added.
Do COVID tests actually expire?
Yes, COVID tests expire, and you shouldn't use expired COVID tests.
That said, the Food and Drug Administration has extended the expiration dates for some at-home COVID-19 tests. If you have old tests sitting in a cupboard or receive tests from the government that show expired dates, check if the date has been extended on the FDA website.
If your test is truly expired, you should not use it, Nam Tran, Ph.D., clinical professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at UC Davis Health in California, told NBC News.
Over time, the compounds in a COVID-19 test will degrade and no longer provide reliable results, Tran explained. “I know it costs money and I know it saves time, but if you’re going to get a wrong result, that could lead to unintended consequences,” he said.
Extreme heat, high humidity and freezing temperatures can also affect those compounds, experts told TODAY.com previously. That’s why it’s important to store your COVID tests properly and, if you ordered them online, to bring them inside as soon as you can — especially in cold winter temperatures.
Free at-home COVID tests from the Biden administration are back
Back in May, the Biden administration announced an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency, which meant a cut in funding to services that provided tools like free and low-cost tests and large-scale coronavirus data tracking.
This round of tests is thanks to the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response investing $600 million to support U.S. test manufacturers, such as iHealth in California and Princeton BioMeditech in New Jersey.
“The Biden-Harris Administration, in partnership with domestic manufacturers, has made great strides in addressing vulnerabilities in the U.S. supply chain by reducing our reliance on overseas manufacturing,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “These critical investments will strengthen our nation’s production levels of domestic at-home COVID-19 rapid tests and help mitigate the spread of the virus.”
When to take a COVID test in 2023
The CDC recommends taking a COVID-19 test when you have symptoms that could indicate a coronavirus infection, such as a runny nose, sore throat or fever. You should also take a test about five days after a known exposure to someone with COVID-19, the CDC says. And testing can be a useful tool before attending an event with high-risk individuals, such as a family holiday gathering.
In addition to the new round of free at-home tests, the public also has access to newly approved COVID-19 vaccines, which have been updated to protect against more recent strains of the virus, like EG.5 and HV.1.
And, as experts told TODAY.com previously, wearing a high-quality mask is still an effective option to provide more protection — especially in closed, indoor spaces.
Caroline Kee contributed reporting.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com