COVID-19 diagnostic tests help limit the spread of the virus by giving an early warning when it’s most contagious. Since many people may experience mild, or even no, symptoms, it is not uncommon to not recognize the virus even when you have it; a problem solved by tests. While there are two types of diagnostic tests: antigen tests, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, it’s important to understand the difference between them so that you can decide which option is best for you.
The Difference Between Antigen and PCR Tests
The first type of COVID-19 diagnostic tests are known as antigen tests. These tests detect antigens: a protein that triggers an immune response when a person is infected with the virus. Antigen tests, commonly referred to as rapid antigen tests, can be taken at the doctor’s office or at home. They work best if taken 5 days post exposure.
While there are many brands of antigen tests available, all work the same way: swab the inside of each nostril, soak the swab in a chemical, add drops of that chemical to a test strip, and wait. If you’re positive, a pink line will appear in the results window in a half hour or less. Antigen tests are the way to go if you’re in need of fast results.
A second type of COVID-19 diagnostic test is what is known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. PCR tests are molecular-based tests that detect the virus’ genetic material, or in other words, its DNA. PCR tests must be processed in a lab, which means longer wait times for receiving results. Although results may take longer, compared to antigen tests, PCR tests are more sensitive to detecting the virus and may achieve more accurate results.
Like antigen tests, PCR tests can be taken by swabbing the inside of nose. They can also be taken through saliva. If you are in no rush and are willing to wait one-to-three days before receiving results, then a PCR test may be the option for you.
Where Can I Get a COVID Test? How Much Will It Cost Me?
COVID testing is usually free of charge, whether it’s covered by insurance or the U.S. government.
Most pharmacies (including large chains like Costco, CVS, Meijer, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart) carry antigen tests that you can administer at home. However, supplies of these tests can be spotty. Many pharmacies also provide on-site PCR and rapid antigen testing. You can search for local testing sites here.
The U.S. government is offering four rapid antigen test kits per household, free of charge. Test kits can also be ordered online through the United State Postal Service.
Beginning in Spring 2022 Medicare will cover over-the-counter COVID tests, but your health plan may cover them already if a physician orders one, or if you have the test performed at a lab, pharmacy, physician’s office, or hospital.
For the duration of the public health emergency, Zing Health members can receive up to eight free rapid at-home individual tests per month without the need for prior authorization as long as the test is FDA-approved. Members simply need to bring the test to the pharmacy counter and show their Member ID card to get the free tests.
Members who paid for an FDA-approved at-home test at the check-out counter or online are eligible to be reimbursed up to $12 per test purchased on or after Feb. 7 by using the form found here. For help from Zing Health, call 1-866-946-4458 (TTY 711).