During last winter’s omicron surge, COVID tests were hard to come by. Long lines wrapped around the block at testing sites and pharmacy shelves were wiped out of at-home test kits.
Now, as the country endures another surge in COVID-19 cases, home tests are much easier to come by. Households can order a limited number of free tests from the government, and a new law requires most insurers to reimburse you if you purchase your own.
But now that you’ve gotten your hands on a COVID-19 test, what do you do if you test positive? Do you have to tell anybody? Is there even a way to report it to public health officials?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “strongly encourages” people who test positive for COVID-19 with a home testing kit report the results to their doctor. Your health care provider can advise you on the best course of treatment, and in most jurisdictions will report the case to the health department to help build a more accurate tally of new cases.
Some local health departments have set up a way for residents to report a COVID-19 case. Some counties, like Marin County in California and Albany County in New York, make it easy to report a positive test with an online form. You can check with your local health department to see if they have a similar system.
The CDC says it isn’t as concerned about tracking every single case; public health leaders would rather have people test at home and have those cases go untracked, rather than restrict COVID-19 testing to official sites.
“The US Government does not want to construct any barriers that would deter the use of self-tests,” the CDC says. “COVID-19 surveillance continues to be based on results from laboratory testing. The primary role of case reporting is to allow public health agencies to take actions to mitigate disease spread. The public health community, including CDC, is confident that situational awareness remains strong without receiving self-test results.”
Epidemiologists agree that many COVID-19 cases are going uncounted right now, but their estimates on just how many we’re missing vary.
Epidemiologist and Harvard Medical professor John Brownstein told Bloomberg he thought the COVID case count “could be three times bigger” than what the CDC is reporting. Another study out of New York found the true case count could be as much as 31 times higher than what’s reported. (The study is not yet peer reviewed.)