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Can't find a COVID-19 home test? Try a tracking app

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Struggling to find a home COVID-19 test? It might be time to let bots do the scouting for you.

Demand for rapid tests is so high that one Chicago-area teenager created a website dedicated to scouring major retail websites for the products. Fourteen-year-old Eli Coustan got the idea for FindACovidTest.org while planning a holiday get-together with his family, Coustan told CBS Boston. When they had trouble finding tests, Coustan got the idea to build a site that checks retailers for an "add to cart" button every five to 10 minutes. He told CBS Boston it now get thousands of visitors a day.

Other tracking websites and apps — including HotStock, NowInStock.net, ZooLert and Brickseek — have added COVID-19 home tests to their suite of in-demand items. The tools, which just weeks ago were helping some holiday shoppers secure in-demand gaming consoles or graphics cards, are now keeping a digital eye out for tests across ecommerce sites.

Jonathan Allen has also noticed the change. Better known by his social media handle "SupplyNinja," he's been following restocks of high-demand electronics like PS5 or XBox consoles on his Twitter account and newsletter. But shortly after Christmas, he started seeing messages asking for help snagging COVID-19 tests amid an ongoing surge in infections fueled by the Omicron variant.

"I've been getting requests since the New Year started. Seems that once Christmas was out of the way, people began focusing back on today's current event — this virus," he told CBS MoneyWatch recently. 

Allen estimates he receives up to 15 message a day inquiring about finding a test kit. "I get so many, they bury each other," he said. 

The popular coupon app Honey lists four types of at-home COVID tests among the items most watched by users, including tests manufactured by Binax, QuickVue, Homeflex and InteliSwab.

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COVID tests on Honey.com Honey screenshot

ZooLert recently added a COVID-19 tracker to its online roster. NowInStock.net and Brickseek are also tracking tests' availability. The change comes amid a nationwide shortage of COVID tests coinciding with the end of the holiday travel season and the rise  in infections.

The tech behind these apps

Product trackers use the same technology to locate COVID-19 tests as they do to hunt down other items. Most use website scrapers or bots to detect changes on a product's webpage on large retail websites. They might detect if the "Add to cart" button lights up, indicating that something is in stock. Others connect to a website's application programming database, or API, to check if something is in stock. 

"They're not connected to any kind of master database — mostly they just keep checking the website over and over," Rick Watson, an ecommerce consultant, recently told CBS MoneyWatch.

That means using a tracker won't necessarily get you insider information on whether a test is available. But it can save you from having to manually trawl retail websites to see if something is in stock. On social media, people have compared the search for a COVID-19 test to experiences like trying to score amusement park tickets or high-demand sneakers.

"Do you miss the thrill of refreshing [the Disney app] to snag a fast pass? Well, I have found the next best thing. Refreshing the Walgreens page to snag a COVID test," one Twitter user wrote.

How to use them

If you're scouring around for a COVID-19 test, trackers can help — as long as you're aware of their limitations. Most only work for national retailers with an online presence, such as CVS, Walmart, Walgreens, Amazon or eBay. If a retailer isn't online— and the vast majority of neighborhood pharmacies and retail stores aren't — they won't show up on an online tracker. 

For example, at least one website that has COVID-19 tests in stock — health care company Ro — doesn't appear on major trackers.

Sign up for multiple services

Because different trackers work differently and sometimes miss items, it's best to sign up for several services to make sure your bases are covered. 

For instance, on Wednesday afternoon NowInStock.net showed On/Go tests as sold out at Walmart, but a CBS MoneyWatch reporter was able to click through Walmart.com and add tests to a shopping cart.

Choose how to be alerted

Users have several options to get alerts, including emails, phone alerts and browser alerts. Most apps also have a messaging channel that users can monitor — ZooLert has a channel on Discord, while NowInStock has one on Telegram.

Email can be slow, however, and not everyone checks it frequently, so most trackers recommend using some other notice system. For instance, you can keep ZooLert and NowInStock.net open in a browser window — they offer a sound alarm that goes off when your item is back in stock. HotStock.io sends a browser notification. You can also choose to get Telegram notifications sent directly to your phone. 

Sign up with a shopping site 

Once you sign up to track items, make sure you create accounts with the retailers you're tracking. Having critical information in the system, including payment information and your shipping address, can save you valuable typing time once a test has been restocked and it's time to buy.

Remember, trackers only tell you when something is available — they don't actually reserve the product.

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