Can you still order free COVID tests by mail? Yes, thanks to the federal government.
The Biden administration announced in September 2023 that it was bringing back another round of free COVID tests through COVIDTests.gov and the United States Postal Service. Starting Sept. 25, 2023, you can place an online order for the free government COVID tests, which will then be delivered by mail.
The free at-home COVID testing program is returning as cases and hospitalizations have been rising in the U.S.
“We had a late summer wave,” CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said at the 2023 National Foundation for Infectious Diseases annual news on Sept. 28.
Hospitalizations due to COVID have gone up 11.4% over the past two weeks, and intensive care unit admissions are up 4.4% in the same timeframe, according to NBC News’ dashboard. (That said, COVID deaths are down 38.7% over the past two weeks.)
“We fully expect, based on what we’ve seen in previous years, that we’re going to see an increase in COVID (this fall and winter),” Cohen said. “COVID continues to pose a health threat, but we have more and more tools,” such as testing and vaccination.
“September and October is the right time to get vaccinated (with) the updated vaccine that we’re recommending for everyone 6 months and older,” Cohen continued, stressing the importance of the new COVID booster for people over 65 or with underlying conditions like obesity, diabetes and asthma.
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
Starting Sept. 25, 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.
Shipping will begin the week of Oct. 2, 2023, per USPS.com.
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, according to the Biden administration.
“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.
“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.
The new announcement comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths remain higher than they’ve been in previous weeks, largely thanks to the emergence of new variants. That includes the XBB.1.5 strain that surged over the summer and EG.5, which has been gaining steam, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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 XBB.1.5. 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.