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At-home rapid COVID tests

At-home DIY tests will be a fast way to self-screen for the virus. Here's what to know.

As the world adjusts to COVID, we’re hitting bumps as cases surge and new variants such as Delta and Omicron emerge. The Ministry of Health encourages vaccines and boosters, continued mask-wearing to curb the spread of Omicron.

Rapid antigen testing (RAT) is also being used to further the reduce the chance of spread. Until now, RATs have been limited in New Zealand to select groups but this is set to change as Omicron becomes more prevalent. The government plans to make at-home rapid antigen COVID tests more widely available to the public in 2022.

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What are the different types of COVID tests?

There are two types of diagnostic tests that are currently being used in New Zealand — rapid antigen and PCR tests. While they can both determine if you have the virus, they differ from each other.

Antigen tests, otherwise known as “rapid” tests, detect nucleocapsid protein from SARS-CoV-2. When done at home results can come back in as little as 15 minutes or as long as 30 minutes. They usually cost between $10 and $30 each.

PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, or “molecular” tests can identify trace amounts of coronavirus DNA on a patient’s sample. Results typically take longer, from one hour up to two days and are typically carried out by a lab rather than at home. PCR tests can cost upward of $100 or more.

How do at-home COVID tests work?

Rapid antigen COVID tests require you to take a nasal swab. You typically insert the swab into a solution for 15 to 30 minutes.

Results are often similar to home pregnancy tests that show two lines for a positive result and one for negative. Each test unit is designed for one-time use.

How accurate are at-home COVID tests?

Preliminary studies show rapid antigen tests accurately pinpoint COVID infections in 72% of people with symptoms on average, compared to 58% of infected people who are asymptomatic.

However, PCR molecular tests are highly sensitive and accurate, getting error-free results between 95% and 100% of the time.

How to safely use your at-home COVID test

As with any product, you will need to carefully follow the instructions included with your at-home testing kit. Before using it, ensure that your test is not damaged in any way, and always check the expiration date.

If you test negative but are experiencing COVID symptoms, experts suggest self-testing again within two to three days to rule out negative results due to testing too early in your infection.

If you test positive, contact your primary care physician to report your results and learn about treatment specific to your symptoms.

I’ve tested positive. How do I know if it’s Omicron?

It’s not possible to tell. Most tests that commercial and public health labs use can identify SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID — yet there isn’t a way to determine the particular variant without sending your sample to a lab for genetic sequencing to isolate genetic signatures unique to a specific variant.

Continue to follow the Ministry of Health’s isolation and quarantine guidelines, no matter the variant you think you’ve contracted.

How do I get a free COVID test?

If you are unvaccinated and travelling domestically during the core summer period (to 31 January) supervised rapid antigen tests are free through GPs and selected pharmacies. You can find a list of participating pharmacies through Healthpoint.

RATs are also free for public health and government agencies within higher risk settings.

When a COVID test is appropriate

When at home Covid testing becomes available, experts suggest the best time for screening yourself with a COVID test is when you:

  • Experience any COVID symptoms.
  • Intend to gather with high-risk or vulnerable people.
  • Plan to travel domestically or attend an event that doesn’t allow for distancing.

Otherwise, regularly self-test to ensure against the possibility of a false negative result from a single test. False positives are more likely to come up when you use an at-home COVID antigen test and have no symptoms.

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