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Are at-home COVID-19 tests worth it?

An at-home test "could very easily have a false negative if somebody doesn't collect their sample appropriately," Dr. Payal Kohli told KGW.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The surge in COVID-19 cases in the Pacific Northwest and across the country has people on edge, wondering how best to avoid the virus and how to tell for sure whether they have it or not.

The number of daily positive tests in Oregon has continued to grow, setting records for both total number of cases and hospitalizations, and more people are getting tested than at any point during the pandemic.

With the wait to get a test sometimes taking days, some are turning to at-home COVID-19 tests as an alternative.

Dr. Payal Kohli, a cardiologist and KGW’s medical expert, said at-home tests offer the advantage of getting more tests to more people. 

“The flip side of the coin is that the tests have to be accurate,” said Dr. Kohli. "And in my opinion, having a bad test is worse than not having a test at all."

The U.S. Federal Drug Administration has authorized the first rapid at-home coronavirus test. You administer the Lucria COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit test on yourself at home and get results in 30 minutes. 

The Lucria test is a big development in the at-home testing industry, but it won’t be widely available nationwide until spring of 2021.

RELATED: Oregon Health Authority not sure how many COVID-19 tests are available or how many were used

Currently, there are nine companies authorized by the FDA to sell at-home testing kits where you ship your sample to a lab.

The kits cost between $109 and $155 and use a nasal swab or saliva collection method.

These are not rapid tests, meaning you must administer a swab on yourself or provide a saliva sample, send it off to the lab and wait for the results to be emailed to you.

The labs claim high accuracy rates. But Dr. Kohli points out that all of the at-home tests were given emergency authorization by the FDA, which differs from full FDA approval and doesn’t require as rigorous of a review process.

RELATED: What does emergency use for a COVID-19 vaccine mean?

Dr. Kohli said the collection process could be an issue, since most people have never done a nasal swab on themselves.

“There are rules given by the CDC as to how long it has to sit in there, how much you have to swirl it around how far in you have to get it," Dr. Kohli said. "So, all of that is highly dependent on the person who's collecting the sample, and it could very easily have a false negative if somebody doesn't collect their sample appropriately.”

Nasal swab tests

The KGW Investigates team ordered two of the at-home tests – the Pixel at-home test for $119 and the Everlywell at-home test for $109 – to see how the process worked. Both tests use a nasal swab to collect the sample.

We ordered both tests on a Thursday.

The Pixel test arrived Friday mid-morning, meaning we could have taken the test and sent it back the same day via FedEx.

The Everlywell test arrived Friday evening, meaning we could not have taken the test and dropped it in a FedEx or UPS box to be shipped back the same day.

Both companies stress you must take the test and send it back on the same day. You can’t drop the sample in a FedEx or UPS box on Saturday of Sunday, although you can schedule a FedEx pick-up on Saturday.

The companies each have videos on their websites to watch before administering the tests.

Both kits had clear instructions on how to take the test and send the samples to a lab.

“I think if we are going to shift from testing in public health facilities and hospitals to at home, which plausibly we could do, then we do need a public health campaign to educate people as to what the correct way to do it,” said Dr. Kohli.

We collected our samples on a Monday and shipped them back the same day.

The Pixel results arrived via email on Tuesday and the Everlywell results arrived on Thursday. Both were negative for COVID-19.

Health experts say these kinds of at-home tests might be best suited for two patient populations: patients in rural areas without access to testing sites or high-risk patients who want to be tested without leaving their homes.

It could also be an option for someone not wanting to wait several days to get an appointment at a hospital or urgent care facility.

Surface tests

Another part of the at-home testing industry deals with testing buildings, not individuals.

Enviral Tech, an Oregon company behind an at-home surface test, emailed KGW investigates and offered to send us a test kit. 

Companies like nursing homes use the swabs to see if COVID-19 is on a surface before an outbreak is detected.

The kit came with eight swabs and clear instructions on how to test high traffic areas.

KGW Investigates tested keypads, doorknobs, and other surfaces all over the station and sent the swabs off the same day.

The negative results arrived via email the next day.

“None of the surfaces that you've collected samples from showed any signs of COVID. So, this is a good thing,” said Enviral Tech CEO Shula Jaron.

Jaron said if a nursing home or long-term care facility receives a positive test, they start cleaning immediately and decide who needs to be tested for the coronavirus.

“It tells them that they need to take more precautions. Maybe they need to identify who it is, who's shedding virus, and remove them from the facility, do more cleaning and disinfecting and that sort of thing,” Jaron said.

Bottom line with at-home test and really any COVID test on the market: Just because you test negative doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus.

“We saw this with President Trump, who was being tested daily," Dr. Kohli said. "So that negative test today just means there's not enough virus to trigger positivity. It does not mean that there's no virus at all and that you're safe."

Dr. Kohli said when it comes to surface tests, nasal swabs or any kind of COVID-19 test, people should not be using negative results to justify having a large gathering, stopping face mask use or flouting social distancing guidelines.

Watch on YouTube: KGW Investigates