Access-to-COVID-19-Tests COVID-19 Tests Questions & Answers: Access to Testing

COVID-19 Tests Questions & Answers: Access to Testing

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Backgrou​nd

The COVID-19 State of Emergency ended in California on February 28, 2023. The federal Public Health Emergency (PHE) ended nationally on May 11, 2023. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) recommends the following for Local Health Jurisdictions (LHJs). 

  • Advise individuals in their jurisdictions to keep at least four unexpired tests on hand per household member.
  • Maintain a local stockpile of over-the-counter (OTC) COVID-19 testing supplies that could last at least eight weeks (if space allows) to support outbreak response for the uninsured and underinsured.
    • Monitor expiration dates and rotate test stockpiles to ensure that tests work correctly. 

CDPH highly recommends prioritizing local supplies for uninsured or underinsured people. If local resources are limited, further prioritize these resources in response to outbreaks in high-risk settings.

For more information on the end of the state of emergency and the federal PHE for COVID-19, see the California Health and Human Services COVID-19 website and the Department of Managed Health Care COVID-19 Factsheet (PDF).

Questions & Answers

Where can I access free at home self-tests to find out if I am infected? 

If you think you might be infected with COVID-19, either because you've been exposed or because you have symptoms, you should take a COVID-19 test.

  • Four free at-home tests per household mailed by the U.S. government continue to be available at this time (limited to one order per address). Order through the U.S Postal Service at the COVID.gov website. 

  • Additional free tests may be mailed to your home, if eligible, from the Home Test to Treat program. This is a federal program for COVID-19 testing and treatment.  

  • Free tests can also be obtained through some community organizations serving uninsured or underinsured people. See also the CDC No-Cost Testing Locator.

  • Additional possible places to get free test kits include schools, food pantries, libraries, faith-based organizations, federally qualified health centers, community centers, local pharmacies, and needle exchange programs.  

Tests available at pharmacies may have some out-of-pocket costs depending on your insurance coverage for out-of-network providers.  

  • Medi-Cal: Medi-Cal cards can be brought to the pharmacy prescription drop-off window for FREE at-home tests with no co-pay.

  • Medicare: A red, white, and blue Medicare card can be brought to the pharmacy window to get FREE tests when prescribed by a healthcare provider. Some Medicare plans may still provide free at-home COVID-19 tests. See details at Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Frequently Asked Questions End of COVID-19 PHE (PDF). 

  • Private insurance: Insurance must pay or reimburse for eight at-home test kits per month. Private insurance companies may be partnered with specific pharmacies. Members should contact health insurers for specific information for in-network providers.​ 

How can I be prepared in case I am exposed to COVID-19 or develop COVID-19 symptoms?

All families and households should keep at least four unexpired* COVID-19 rapid tests on hand for each household member. If you have to, you can use an expired test until you can get new ones, as long as the control line is working. See your test kit instructions for details about the control line. If you do not have an at-home test, testing locations can be found at Find a Testing Site (ca.gov) or No-Cost COVID-19 Testing (cdc.gov). In addition, each household should keep well-fitting face masks on hand to wear if exposed or if symptoms develop.

*Note: Most COVID-19 rapid tests have extended expiration dates that go beyond the dates on the boxes. For more information, visit the FDA webpage.

Will my health insurance continue to cover the costs of my rapid tests since the public health emergency ended?

Health plan enrollees can continue to access COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and treatment with no prior authorization or cost sharing if using their health plan's in-network healthcare providers. Enrollees can be charged cost-sharing only if these services are provided out-of-network. 

People with traditional Medicare can continue to receive COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and antigen tests with no cost-sharing when the test is ordered by a physician or other healthcare provider and performed by a laboratory. People enrolled in Medicare Advantage (MA) plans can continue to receive COVID-19 PCR and antigen tests, but may have a cost-sharing depending on the health plan. By law, Medicare does not generally cover OTC services and tests.  Some MA plans may continue to provide coverage as a supplemental benefit.   ​

Some of the rapid tests I have are past the expiration date shown on their boxes. Can I still use them? 

Most rapid tests have updated expiration dates that are later than the dates listed on their boxes. For more information, visit the FDA webpage 

Replace your tests with fresh ones as the updated expiration dates approach. If you have to, you can use an expired test as long as the control line is working. See your test kit instructions for details about the control line. ​

If I don't have a home test, where can I get tested if my previous community site is now closed?

  • If you have health insurance, contact your insurer for details on where you can get tested or how to get home tests.

  • Your health care provider can also order a test for you. 

  • If you do not have health insurance, go to No-Cost COVID-19 Testing to find local pharmacies where you can get tested for free. You may also check for community access to testing and the CDC Bridge Access Program. ​​

If I have tests at home, should I go to a healthcare provider for testing?​

If you have tests at home, it is not necessary to go to a health care provider for testing.  If you are experiencing severe symptoms, are getting worse, or do not seem to be recovering after four or five days, you should contact a healthcare provider for evaluation. 

I was exposed to COVID-19. What should I do?

If you develop symptoms, you should wear a mask and test right away to see if you are infected. Test again 1 day later if your first test is negative. If your second test is negative and you are still concerned about COVID-19, consider a third test at least a day later or consult with your healthcare provider.  

If you do not have symptoms and are higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection, test within 5 days after exposure date. Treatment works best if started right away. If you have contact with people who are at higher risk of severe infection, you should mask indoors when around them for 10 days. Consider testing within 5 days and before visiting people at higher-risk. ​

What are the next steps if my COVID-19 test is positive?

If you test positive and have symptoms, you should follow the guidance in What to Do If You Test Positive​ and contact your healthcare provider about COVID-19 treatment. Ask if a prescription medicine (such as Paxlovid or Lagevrio) is recommended. If you do not have a healthcare provider, you can find options at CDPH treatment page or by calling 833-686-5051.  

If you test positive and don’t have symptoms, follow the recommendations found in the What to Do If You Test Positive ​

Can I buy COVID-19 medications (Paxlovid or Lagevrio) at the drug store?

A prescription from a health care provider is needed to get Paxlovid or Lagevrio. Learn more about who should seek treatment by visiting the CDPH treatment page or by calling 833-686-5051. 

Who is at risk of becoming seriously ill if infected, and should receive medication to treat COVID-19?

Anyone pregnant, recently pregnant, or 50 years of age or older, is at increased risk for severe disease and should have medications to treat COVID-19. Additionally, more than a third of Californians fall into a “Higher Risk” group. For information on higher risk medical conditions, see the CDC guidance or talk to your doctor to find out if you are in a “Higher Risk” group that is considered more likely to need hospitalization or die due to COVID-19.  


Originally published on May 24, 2023