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Free COVID test kits are back. Here's how to get them.

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Are expired at-home COVID tests still effective? Here's how to tell. 03:17

The Biden administration has resumed taking orders for free at-home COVID-19 tests as of Sept. 25. The administration is also launching a new infusion of money to boost domestic manufacturing of the test kits. 

How to order free COVID tests

Four free tests were available for each household to request through the government's portal starting on Monday, Sept. 25, according to a release. Americans with trouble ordering online can also call 1-800-232-0233 or 1-888-720-7489 for TTY.

Tests will be shipped through the U.S. Postal Service starting the week of Oct. 2, and would not be directly affected by a potential government shutdown if Congress fails to pass a funding bill by the end of the month.

"We have been looking at what we've seen before in the increase in cases. We think being able to make tests available is just an important tool that we have and can make available," said Dawn O'Connell, head of the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response, which oversees the federal stockpile of tests in an interview Sept. 20.

The government previously offered free test kits last winter, but shipments through the website have been on pause since May to conserve supplies of the tests. 

However, officials have stressed that other free testing options have remained available to many communities through efforts like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Increasing Community Access to Testing program at retail drug stores. 

"We've had these stockpiled. We'd rather folks have these tests in their medicine cabinets that they can use now, than sitting in a stockpile somewhere. So we really think it's just been an important tool, and we made an active decision to make it available now," said O'Connell.

Four free antigen tests

The four at-home tests that will be shipped are coming out of a supply that will remain usable through at least the end of the year, under expiration date extensions greenlighted by the Food and Drug Administration

Authorities have said that COVID tests are continuing to work as well as they did with other recent variants, for the latest strains on the rise. That includes the highly mutated BA.2.86 variant that has been spotted around the world and in several U.S. states. 

The free COVID tests being offered will be antigen tests, which are generally cheaper and easier to use than some other at-home molecular or lab-based options, but have a higher chance of yielding false negative test results  — meaning they miss some cases where a person is actually infected.

After studies of false negative results last year from antigen tests, the FDA has urged Americans who are feeling sick or have been exposed to the virus to test again every 48 hours if they get an initial negative result. 

More tests could be made available for ordering later this year, O'Connell said, if there are enough supplies or a larger surge drives demand.

"We reserve the right to up that if we need to, if we were to see a surge different than what we've been seeing before, or if a new variant came along and we needed access to tests quicker. The wonderful thing about having a stockpile is we can use it," said O'Connell.

Millions of dollars to produce more COVID tests

As it prepares to ship out millions of previously purchased tests now nearing expiration, ASPR says it is also spreading new awards of $600 million across a dozen manufacturers to continue producing COVID-19 tests in the U.S. 

Put together, the contract awards also add up to some 200 million new over-the-counter COVID-19 tests that the Biden administration will be buying up for its future needs.

That will allow test manufacturers to remain as a "warm base" even after demand subsides, O'Connell said, able to ramp up faster for any unexpected surges. That was a lesson officials learned from the original surge of the Omicron variant, which led to shortages of kits.

"The lines will keep running. They will not throttle down. They will continue to run tests, as we pull them off the line," said O'Connell.

ASPR opened up the opportunity to enter into talks for this money to all companies, O'Connell said. Test companies will still be able to supply kits first to the private market, like to pharmacies and online retailers, and then switch to sending kits to the federal stockpile after demand slows.

The biggest award – $167 million – is going to California-based iHealth, which was also a major supplier in the last wave of free COVID-19 tests.

Some new test companies are also among the recipients, while others – like testmakers Abbott or Roche, which received millions earlier during the pandemic – were not mentioned.

"We negotiated the terms based on their capacity, based on what we thought they'd be able to maintain, based on their willingness to maintain. And so all of those factors went into thow these contracts were negotiated. We're super proud of the 12 that have emerged," she said.

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