Health Watch: Alaska health officials discuss efficacy of COVID-19 home test kits

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Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 4:18 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - COVID-19 home test kits are a useful tool in helping to quickly identify COVID-19 infections according to Alaska health officials.

Dr. Coleman Cutchins, Clinical Pharmacist for the State of Alaska to us there are a variety of different home test kits available.

“The first category is one that we’ve had for a while,” Dr. Cutchins explained. “That’s where you buy a test in a box, in there are the materials you need to swab yourself and send them to a lab. Those are usually done over like a Zoom-type encounter, where somebody watches you swab yourself, [then] they watch you seal up the box. Those function much the same as the type of test you would get through drive-through, and it would get sent to a lab where they’re validated.”

Dr. Cutchins continued, “The next category are rapid at-home tests that also include some type of telemedicine encounter. Some of those can be rapid molecular, they send you a device that you use once and throw away. Or some of them, you can buy a device and do them in your own home.”

There are even tests that streamline the process and circumvent the need to involve telemedical calls.

“The other kind that has more recently come on the market are these what we call ‘over the counter’ tests,” Dr. Cutchins elaborated. “These are ones where nobody watches, you swab yourself, nobody validates your results. I think of it like a home pregnancy test. You do the test at home and you interpret your own results. For those, I will say, the key with those is following the directions exactly. These tests are meant to be simple to do, easy to understand, but you really have to follow the directions exactly.”

While the tests can be a very useful tool, there are some risks involved in using them according to Dr. Cutchins.

“What we know about the performances of those tests is, they have very good performance when they’re positive,” Dr. Cutchins continued. “When they’re positive, you have COVID - very, very, very likely - very similar performance to even some of the best lab tests for when you test positive. Now what we see more of in some of these types of tests, these rapid at-home antigens, we see more false negatives. That’s when somebody tests negative when they are in fact positive. Many of the tests come with two tests, meant to be done 36 to 48 hours apart. If any one of those is positive, you’re positive; but if both of them are negative, you are 70 to 90% likely to not have COVID. The way these tests actually work the best for negative predictive value is when you have more negatives.”

Dr. Cutchins went on to say that, overall, these are really good tests to have on hand. “The instances where you would want to seek more advice is the instance where you have symptoms and you’re negative,” he explained, “[like] if you have symptoms and both your tests are negative, [or] you have another reason to believe you’re in close contact with someone who has COVID and your tests are negative. Again, I think they’re a really valuable tool for people to know earlier when they are infected. They can just get one of these tests, and then 10 to 20 minutes at home, have a positive, and just know they have COVID, they can start isolating and letting the people know that they’ve been around that they are close contact.”

Overall, the home kits are particularly useful in helping to catch potential infections early and prevent further spreading according to Dr. Cutchins. “For some lower risk people, it would be a good idea to have some of these at home. You wake up in the morning, you don’t feel well, you can take that test, you know if it’s positive, you know pretty quick. If you’re negative the whole time, I’d say reach out to a medical provider to see if you need more testing. It’s not the cure-all, it’s not the one tool, it’s another tool that we have and another tool that’s useful for situations - and it’s going to add for our testing strategy.”

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