Americans nationwide have turned to Covid at-home tests as wait times for urgent care testing have increased during a surge of Omicron cases. Without medical care professionals present, however, many people are wondering just how accurate the at-home tests are at detecting the presence of Covid-19.
According to health officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), doctors suggested that symptomatic individuals who test negative on an at-home test should seek additional testing at a medical facility or testing center to double-check and confirm that they are not positive for the Omicron variant.
Though Covid at-home tests are primarily effective at detecting positive cases of the virus, individuals “may have reduced sensitivity,” the FDA said in a statement released on Tuesday.
According to medical professionals, the issue isn’t that the tests are ineffective, but that the Omicron virus’ highly transmissible spread is less detectible in early infections. “The FDA continues to authorize the use of these tests,” health professionals wrote, adding that, “antigen tests are generally less sensitive and less likely to pick up very early infections compared to molecular tests.”
Those with symptoms will most likely be able to receive positive diagnoses without a problem from Covid at-home tests, but the virus may not be as easily detectible in asymptomatic individuals with early exposure. Symptomatic individuals with a negative result from an at-home test are advised to get tested again at a testing facility to confirm if they are positive, or simply experiencing symptoms from the Winter flu season.
“The tests perform equally well across all variants, including Omicron,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and Chief Science Officer for eMed who spoke with NBC News.
“Tests were less sensitive for Omicron v Delta,” Dr. Mina continued, but “Importantly, the issue isn’t the test!”
Instead, the at-home tests have proven that Omicron has a different kind of infection, which is less strong and more transmissible. This kind of infection therefore affects all rapid Covid tests, even PCR tests.
The good news is that although Omicron may be more infectious – affecting more people across the globe than ever before – it is less severe, especially for those who have received two doses of the vaccine and a third Covid-19 booster.
In the U.K., where the spread of Omicron has ravaged the country resulting in record high cases, the number of vaccinated people in ICU units has drastically decreased.
John Bell, a professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, told BBC News on Tuesday that data showed that, “The incidence of severe disease and death from this disease [Covid] has basically not changed since we all got vaccinated,” which is, “really important to remember.”
“The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago — intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely — that is now history in my view and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue,” he continued.
Many hospital units still remain swamped, however, especially in the United States, but the majority of ICU beds are mainly filled with unvaccinated patients. Likewise, the highly transmissible virus has also infected healthcare professionals, reducing the number of doctors and nurses available to treat patients.
“The disease does appear to be less severe, and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital,” Dr. Bell stated, citing higher turn-around in UK hospitals, which has also been seen in hospitals in the Northeast US. “They don’t need high-flow oxygen, [and] average length of stay is apparently three days–this is not the same disease as we were seeing a year ago.”
Though Covid at-home tests are still hard to come by (and often sell out in minutes), President Joe Biden announced on Monday that the government plans on buying over 500 million tests for Covid-19 to safely distribute nationally for those in need.