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Finding an at-home Covid test can be a pain: How to track one down, according to health professionals

In order to gather safely during the next few weeks, health professionals say testing is crucial.

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Rapid at-home Covid-19 test kits are ready to be distributed at the Chelsea Community Connections in Chelsea, Massachusetts on December 17, 2021.
Joseph Prezioso | AFP | Getty Images

On January 3, the U.S. reported more than 1 million Covid cases, a record high since the pandemic started, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The spike seems caused, at least in part, by how quickly the omicron variant of the virus spreads, health experts say.

As the new year starts, many Americans are wondering, once again, whether the new variant will bring their social lives and hobbies to a halt. Activities like going to the gym or attending a small party seem to hold more risk than they did a few months ago, even for the vaccinated.

If you would like to gather safely, health professionals say testing is crucial. "Find out everyone's vaccine status and consider getting at-home tests done [before gathering]," says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

To do this, you'll need a test kit that gives you results at home, like the BinaxNow one, as opposed to a kit that requires you to mail your sample to a lab.

At-home tests like these are sold at many pharmacies, as well as brick-and-mortar retailers such as Target, Walgreens, CVS, and online. They usually retail for between $14 and $24 for a box containing two tests. Walmart and Kroger recently increased their prices from $14 a test to $20 and $24, respectively, after a deal with the White House to sell the tests at a lower price expired.

But stock is selling quickly, so getting an at-home test kit before the holidays is likely to be a "pain," says Lindsey Dawson, the associate director of HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you're having trouble locating an at-home test, or would like a free one, here's what to do, according to health professionals.

Check online before heading to the store

Some retailers currently selling at-home test kits include:

In many cases, though, as frustrated Twitter users can attest, stores are sold out.

If you want to pick one up from a store, check its website and see if it posts what's in stock. "Keep checking online for in-store availability," Dawson says.

On Walmart.com, for example, you can type in your ZIP code on the product page and find out which locations near you still have stock. Keep in mind, she says, that sometimes the websites aren't up-to-date, so you might want to check availability in a few locations.

Now, some websites track and regularly update which stores have at-home tests available. NowInStock.net and FindaCovidTest.org both list the type of test, where it can be bought, and the price.

You can also visit mom-and-pop pharmacies, as they might have more supply than a popular big box retailer.

Contact your local health department

Starting sometime this January, you will be able to order a free test from the federal government using a website they will launch soon.

Until then, check your health department website as it might be providing at-home tests for free. "Some states have made test available either directly to consumers or have distributed test to local health departments sites," Dawson says.

In Maryland, for example, the health department distributed at-home tests to a slew of sites including schools, day cares, and churches. The department posted a list of locations online so you know where to go for a free at-home test.

In Minnesota, you can order an at-home test kit, free of charge, and the health department will ship it to you within one day of receiving your order.

Try local libraries, too. In Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, you can get a free at-home test kit at any of the 18 libraries in the county. Libraries in other cities have been giving them away, as well.

If you're living in Texas, Florida, or New York, you could order a test to be delivered to your home from BeeperMD, an urgent care service that does house calls. This is not through a health department but is still free.

Ask a friend or your doctor

"People might want to start checking with family or friends if they are not able to purchase one or get one from a public health resource," Dawson says. "Some people may have extras." If you're meeting with family or friends soon, "they have a good incentive to share their own supply," she says.

You might also look to community leaders who might have already stocked up.

And if all this doesn't net you a test, call your doctor, Galiatsatos suggests. "See if they are aware of testing that can be provided efficiently," he says. It's possible they have more information about at-home tests and testing sites than you do.

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