Everything you need to to know about at-home COVID testing, masks

A shortage of COVID testing has been a major problem across the country. Beginning this Wednesday, people will be able to order free at-home rapid tests from a government website. While the site's launch is being anticipated, many people also have concerns about those tests, and other key guidance being given right now. Nicole Ellis looks at some of these basic questions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A shortage of COVID testing has been a major problem across the country.

    Beginning this Wednesday, people will be able to order free at-home rapid tests from the government. Any individual or family will be able to get four tests by going to the Web site COVIDtests.gov.

    That news is welcome, but many people have concerns about those tests and other key guidance that is being given right now.

    Nicole Ellis looks at some of those basic questions.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Surging COVID cases from the Omicron variant have made it difficult for all of us to navigate our everyday lives. And it's creating more questions around vaccines, testing and masks.

    To get some clarity around this, I'm joined by Dr. Payal Patel, an infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan.

    I want to start with testing. What is the current CDC guidance around getting tested for COVID?

    Dr. Payal Patel, University of Michigan: What I would say is, there are a couple of tests out there. You have probably heard at this point about antigen vs. PCR.

    I think, if you can get a hand on either of those tests, and follow the guidance about whether you need to be tested — and, most of the time, if you're asking yourself this question, the answer is yes — then I think you can go from there.

    And I wouldn't worry about which one it is if you can get your hand on a test.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    The Biden administration is promising half-a-billion at home tests free to Americans, but they're also known to be a little less accurate than PCR tests. So, how do the two work together, and what's their purpose?

  • Dr. Payal Patel:

    The antigen test is a little bit different than the PCR test, the way that they kind of detect infection in your body.

    And the PCR test can be what we call more sensitive. Now, at the same time, that's a good thing, but that can be an interesting thing. If, after 14 days, your PCR test is still positive, it's not going to exactly tell you when you got infected. And so, that can sometimes be the difference between the two tests.

    I will say, if you have a positive test at all, I would believe it, and it's not likely to be a false positive.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Some public health experts say that rapid tests are very good at telling you whether or not you are viral or contagious right now.

    How accurate is that? And is there a correlation between getting a positive test and whether or not you're contagious?

  • Dr. Payal Patel:

    What is really difficult about COVID is that, often, you are the most contagious before you have symptoms.

    So, that is part of the reason that we're seeing so much spread of the infection right now. So, keep that in mind. And if you do start having symptoms, I do think it's a good idea to get tested. And we're noticing, especially with Omicron, some research shows that your first test may be negative.

    So, it does make sense, if you have that test at home, to test again, especially if you're having symptoms. Now, at the end of when you're — you have had symptoms for five or 10 days, you have gotten better, the tests are not going to help you know if you're contagious anymore. And that's the hard part of testing.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    The CDC recommends that we wear masks in public indoor spaces.

    Can you explain a little bit about why that is and what we should do?

  • Dr. Payal Patel:

    You know, it's been two years since this all started.

    And there has been a chance for people to start studying, OK, what kind of masks really hold up well against this infection? And the research really shows that cloth masks are inferior. They're not as good as surgical masks or something higher than that, such as N95 or a K94.

    At the end of the day, what's really important is if you can hold your mask on, keep it on, not take it off, it's comfortable to you. So, what I would say is, try to get a mask that works for you. If it can be surgical mask, or something more infiltrative than that, such as a K95 or an N94, that would be best.

    But, at this point, it's probably time to put away the cloth masks.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    For two years now, we have been in anticipation of one day not having to worry about this. Will that day ever come? Will we ever be at a point where we don't have to worry about coronavirus or have to live under these very complicated, confusing circumstances?

  • Dr. Payal Patel:

    What's probably going to happen, as more people in the United States and in the world really get vaccinated, we will start to build up an immunity, and the virus will become less strong, and become one of the viruses in our cadre of millions of viruses that we see.

    It will take a while, but I think taking it step by step — and that comes with becoming vaccinated — can really help how we see — think about the next few months.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Dr. Payal Patel, infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan, thank you so much for joining me.

  • Dr. Payal Patel:

    Thanks for having me today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can watch an extended version of Nicole's question-and-answer session with Dr. Patel online. That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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