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A Primer on COVID Testing

5 things to know about getting tested, insurance coverage, regional sites, and more

January 20, 2022

Getting tested is an important prevention measure to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. With the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the demand for tests accelerated during the winter holidays and continues this month.

Keeping track of the latest developments in COVID-19 testing, insurance coverage, and the federal government’s free COVID-19 testing program can be a challenge. Here’s what you need to know:

When to get tested

Testing is part of the nation’s multi-layered strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19. If you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, it’s important to isolate from others and get tested to determine if you have the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following reasons to get tested:

  • If you have symptoms
  • After a known or suspected exposure
  • For screenings (schools, workplaces, congregate settings)
  • Before travel
  • When asked by a health care professional or public health official

Free over-the-counter options

Beginning January 15, most people with health insurance coverage are eligible to receive up to eight free at-home over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic tests per month. The tests must be authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Last week, the Biden Administration announced:

  • Eight per person:  Insurance companies and health plans are required to cover eight free over-the-counter at-home tests per covered individual per month. A family four, all on the same plan, would be able to get up to 32 of these tests per month
  • Keep your receipts:  Tests will either be free at the point of sale or by reimbursement if you are charged for your test. If you are charged for your test, submit a claim for reimbursement

Order at-home tests online

This week, the federal government launched a website where residents can order up to four free at-home tests. Orders can be placed online. The program:

  • Limits orders to one per residential address
  • Includes four individual rapid antigen COVID-19 tests
  • Will begin shipping tests during late January

Public testing sites

If you need a test immediately, there are regional public testing sites throughout the commonwealth. Learn more about the regional testing locations on the Department of Health’s (DOH) website.

Patients must be 3 years old or older and are not required to show symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested. No appointments are necessary, and up to 450 individuals can be tested per day. Patients are encouraged to bring photo identification, and turnaround time for results is two to seven days.

In addition to those testing sites, the DOH announced today that a drive-through testing site is coming Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. The new location will be able to test 1,000 people per day. This is in addition to another high-volume testing location at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, which opened today.

Choose the right setting for testing

Last week, HAP and Pennsylvania’s hospital community reminded Pennsylvanians to choose non-emergency settings for routine COVID-19 tests. This will help reduce the strain hospitals are experiencing as they care for patients with COVID-19 and other conditions.

Appropriate testing options for people who are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Regional, public testing sites
  • Other public testing sites established by local or county governments
  • Pharmacies
  • At-home tests
  • Privately operated testing services and sites

For people experiencing mild-to-moderate COVID-19 symptoms, testing is also available at many urgent care centers and community health centers.

By seeking routine COVID-19 tests in more appropriate settings and not hospital emergency departments, Pennsylvanians can help ensure hospitals are available to provide care to those who need it most.