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By Brad Tuttle
September 23, 2021
Binax NOW Covid-19 Antigen Self Test on a colored background
Courtesy of Walmart

Walmart, Kroger and Amazon recently agreed to sell discounted rapid COVID-19 tests, but it's been nearly impossible to find many of the tests in stock.

Now, you may not need to buy one if you live in certain locations: A piecemeal assortment of cities, counties, school districts and entire states is hosting programs that will send at-home rapid COVID-19 tests to residents totally free of charge.

Iowa began offering free at-home tests to residents a couple of weeks ago, and this week Colorado launched a statewide program that will mail out free rapid at-home COVID-19 tests. All Coloradans are eligible to sign up for the program online, so long as they have a mailing address in the state.

"Each order includes eight tests, which recipients can use to test themselves or their children twice a week for four weeks," Colorado's Department of Health & Environment explains. "If you are interested in receiving multiple kits, you will need to reorder tests each month. Tests do not automatically ship on a monthly basis."

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Colorado's program is using BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Tests. It's one of a handful of the affordable rapid COVID-19 tests that was recently promoted by the Biden industry as a means to help battle the pandemic. The test shows results roughly 15 minutes after users take a nasal swab.

A package of two BinaxNOW tests is currently priced at $14 at Walmart — a significant discount off the $23.97 list price — but it's been out of stock online for days. Several other discounted at-home tests, sold under brand names like Ellume and Quidel, are also out of stock or haven't hit the market yet.

The only discounted at-home COVID-19 test we've regularly seen available online lately is one sold by Amazon. Bear in mind that it costs $36.99, more than double the price of BinaxNOW tests, and that Amazon's tests are not rapid — samples need to be shipped, so you won't get results for a day or two after the lab receives the test.

Obviously, more people would use these tests if they were readily available and inexpensive — or, even better, free. The COVID-19 vaccine is free, and testing is free at many pharmacies and health centers. But simply getting to a testing site may be difficult or uncomfortable for people with young children or those who have mobility issues or live in rural locations far away from any downtown.

"Making the COVID-19 vaccine free and easily accessible brought cases down quickly in the spring of 2021," Zoe McLaren, associate professor of public policy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, wrote recently. "Putting frequent rapid testing within reach for all could to the same now."

Some other countries seem to agree that it's wise to offer at-home COVID-19 tests for free, or for very low cost, to as many people as possible. According to Kaiser Health News, the United Kingdom is sending up to 14 tests to residents free of charge, while tests cost less than $1 each at supermarkets in Germany.

Where to get free COVID-19 tests

In addition to Colorado's new statewide initiative, a random collection of cities and counties around the country have their programs offering free at-home COVID-19 tests. Here are some of the places giving out free at-home tests. We'll add to this list as more programs arise:

Colorado

All state residents can register for a Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment program and receive eight free COVID-19 tests. More tests can be reordered each month, free of charge.

Iowa

Through the Test Iowa program, residents can request a free at-home test kit be mailed to them (street addresses only, no P.O. boxes) or pick up a test at dozens of locations around the state.

Ohio public libraries

Free at-home COVID-19 tests are being distributed at libraries in Ohio. More than 50,000 free tests were given to the public by Ohio libraries in August, though some locations said recently they are out of supply and awaiting more shipments.

Fulton County, Georgia

Residents in select zip codes in Fulton County — home at Atlanta — can register to get free at-home rapid tests to be mailed to them. "Individuals who have not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine or who have the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19, such as people working or going to school outside the home, are ideal candidates for participation, but anyone over the age of 2 is welcome to participate," the Fulton County Board of Health explained in a press release.

Oahu, Hawaii

A federal pilot program is sending free at-home COVID-19 tests to up to 125,000 residents in eligible zip codes on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. People can sign up online to order eight free tests, or pick them up at select locations.

Marin County, California

Last week a pilot program began sending home free COVID-19 tests with younger students in Marin County, The Mercury News reported.

Passaic County, New Jersey

Residents of this county in northern New Jersey can register for free at-home COVID-19 tests, which will be shipped overnight to those eligible. It's a saliva test, and a free return shipping label is included. Test results will be available two or three days after the sample is returned to the lab.

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