COVID Home Test Reporting Requirements Cause Chaos for Families
At-home tests offer a simple solution when it comes to COVID testing, but parents are learning they may not make the grade when it comes to school, work, and government reporting requirements.
When Kate F.'s* 4-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19 on a home test on Christmas Eve, she didn't think there was much more she needed to do besides isolate and wait for her son to recover. But when she submitted the test to her son's Brooklyn, NY, public school, she was told the administration wasn't sure the at-home test would "count" in terms of tallying her son's days of isolation. She was directed to get an official COVID test from a pharmacy or testing center to verify the results. And that was just the beginning: "I also noticed that there was no easy way to let our state health department know that our entire family was positive," Kate adds.
Kate took herself and her son to the local pharmacy for an "official" test a few days later. "The entire situation was stressful," she says. "I worried for the pharmacy staff, knowing we were positive. I remember waiting in line behind an elderly gentleman and standing 10 feet behind him because I was so worried I would get him sick, even though we were outside and I was double-masked."
Stef Arck-Baynes, from Philadelphia, had a similarly stressful experience when she was told she had to test her 3-year-old daughter tested for COVID after a daycare exposure in early January. She needed a negative test to get her daughter out of isolation.
The only place near her that offered tests for children without symptoms was an urgent care, but they charged $200 and results would not be available immediately. Using an at-home test seemed like a good option, but the daycare would not accept results.
Thankfully, her daycare eventually relented. "We are so grateful they changed this policy or it would have meant another week at home when she and the rest of her classmates were all negative," she said.
Still, she found the whole experience incredibly frustrating and expressed that the confusion around testing options is a "recipe for disaster and depression" for working parents like her.
Kate and Arck-Baynes are far from alone. As the Omicron variant sweeps the country and test appointments become more scarce, people are relying on home tests to identify cases, and to avoid standing in long testing lines. Yet policies surrounding their use are confusing and inconsistent—not to mention that these tests are often difficult to secure.
Some states, cities, and school districts have been handing out home tests, but it was only this week that the Biden administration established a program that offers four home tests per household via USPS. For many American families, that still doesn't go nearly far enough.
Questions remain on how to report these tests, how to be sure they "count" for things like daycare and school isolations, and whether you need a more "official" test to get medical care, insurance coverage, or company sick leaves.
We reached out to experts to help parents understand these issues, and answer the most frequently asked questions about using at-home tests for our kids.
What Is The Process For Reporting At-Home Tests?
The problem with reporting at-home COVID tests at this time is that there is no single, streamlined process. Even within the same state or county, some school districts may accept home test results, while others may not. These regulations continue to change and evolve day by day, which adds to the confusion.
"The process varies typically by public health jurisdiction—so the city, county, or state health department that serves your area would be the first place to check to see if you can report the results of a positive in-home test," says Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., MPH, CPH, professor and epidemiologist at the University of Delaware.
But that's just reporting tests to health departments. When it comes to smaller entities, like workplaces, school districts, or daycare, there may be different regulations, says Dr. Horney. Your best bet is to contact the institution where you need to report your results and find out what they are requiring to verify results at this time.
Some at-home COVID tests, such as the BinaxNow test, allow testers to self-report their results to places like schools and workplaces if they use an external app like the company's NAVICA platform. However, this still may not be enough in some cases. BinaxNow results, for example, are not "verified" and don't count for CDC guidelines or for international travel purposes.
What Do Reporting Issues Mean for Parents?
Widespread lack of acceptance of home test results is costing parents time, money, and sanity, especially when it means that they don't qualify for services and care their families need. Chris LeBron, former director of policy at New York City Counsel, and candidate for NY State Assembly (District 75), shared the story of a family member who tried to report her positive result to New York City's Test & Trace program.
She ended up spending hours trying to connect with someone on the phone. "She has two children, and it took two hours to speak to somebody at Test & Trace," says LeBron.
This meant that not only was this mom unable to report the positive case to the city or to her child's school, but she wasn't able to receive the home care kit that NYC hands out to families who test positive, which includes masks, hand sanitizer, thermometers, and pulse oximeters.
Is It Necessary To Report Positive Tests?
With all the confusion and red tape surrounding reporting at-home tests results, you might be wondering if it's even worth it to do so.
Experts agree that it's a good idea to try to get your test officially reported, if possible. One of the most important reasons is to have official documentation of your positive test results for your health records and for health insurance purposes.
"This would be important in the case of an insurance claim and also in case the patient develops a post-COVID related disability," says Donna A. Patterson, Ph.D, a professor of history, political science and philosophy at Delaware State University. Patterson, who worked on the pandemic response at Delaware State University and teaches and publishes on topics related to public health, says that you may also need this proof if you are a parent who needs to take sick days from work in order to care for your family.
Again, your best bet is to contact your company's health department to find out their procedures for reporting a positive test. The same is true when it comes to your child's school or daycare: contact them to find out what their procedures are.
If there is no way to report your home test, Dr. Patterson does recommend trekking to a testing center to get a more official test result.
"Yes, there are drawbacks if the person is not feeling well and needs to visit an outside test facility," says Dr. Patterson. "However, some areas provide concierge at-home PCR tests that are official." Patients do usually have to pay out of pocket for these tests, though.
Another option available to some parents is obtaining a free, government-authorized test kit by mail. For example, some states, including New Jersey, New Mexico, and Minnesota, will mail tests for free through Vault Medical Services to your home. You take the test during a supervised virtual visit by a Vault test representative, and then send your sample to a lab for official results.
Should Parents Continue To Use At-Home Tests?
The bottom line, experts agree, is that you should use whatever test is available to you right now, because screening your family for COVID—especially if you've been exposed or have symptoms—is vital in curbing the spread of COVID-19.
"At-home tests are often the first line at getting test results and helping to protect a person's family, co-workers, and community while they await other results," says Patterson.
Epidemiologist Dr. Horney agrees. She says that, for all intents and purposes, if you test positive on an at-home COVID test and have symptoms, you should take the results seriously and act accordingly.
Positive at-home tests can tell you that it's now time to begin taking precautions to minimize spread, says Dr. Horney, including isolation and masking. These precautions should be taken whether you need to verify your results elsewhere for school, daycare, or work purposes.
What To Do If Your Child Tests Positive On A Home Test
Again, if your child has a positive at-home test, you should take the results at face value. At-home tests differ in terms of how accurate they may be, but they are thought to be 85 percent accurate at detecting COVID, especially in people with symptoms, according to the New York Times.
"If you are positive on an at-home test and you have symptoms, assume you are infected," says Dr. Horney. Act accordingly by isolating from others in your home, wearing a mask when you can't be separated, and contacting anyone who you might have exposed.
Guidelines for isolation lengths differ from one school, daycare, or workplace to another, but the current CDC guidance is to isolate completely for 5 days, and only leave isolation if you are fever-free for 24 hours or have resolving symptoms. For the following 5 days, the CDC recommends that you continue to mask anytime you are in public or around others in your home.
Luckily, when it comes to the Omicron wave, with some exceptions, most children are not experiencing severe illnesses.
But the lack of guidance when it comes to testing and reporting results can take a toll. It sure did for Kate F., whose son thankfully remained asymptomatic during the course of his illness. "Our positives occurred right before Christmas, so everyone was getting tested and schools were on break, delaying the response from his school and my work," Kate shared. "I still feel like almost two years into this, the needs of working parents are not being met and we're all exhausted on so many levels."
*Last name redacted to protect privacy.