As a growing number of people come down with COVID-19, a new company is helping people get tested for the coronavirus— without ever leaving their homes.
Everlywell, a company that offers dozens of other at-home lab tests, is rolling out 30,000 at-home testing kits starting March 23. The goal is to eventually enable the testing of 250,000 people weekly.
Home testing could dramatically change the management of COVID-19 in the United States. Today, only an estimated 41,000 Americans have been tested — and widespread testing is what experts say is needed to slow the pandemic.
The $135 kits — which require a prescription from a telemedicine physician — could help relieve COVID-19’s burden on hospitals, clinics, and testing centers, and even limit the spread of the virus, says Frank Ong, the chief medical and scientific officer of Everlywell.
“It is important to have this complementary approach for the diagnosis of COVID-19 to help lessen the burden of testing in the clinical setting and to keep potentially infected individuals from spreading the disease further in the public setting," Ong tells Inverse.
Creating an at-home testing option could give medical centers more bandwidth to treat patients with severe COVID-19 and all the other sick individuals who need medical assistance besides the ones affected by the novel coronavirus, Ong says.
Everlywell also claims it will see no profit, and hopes to partner with the government and public health partners, which would enable it to provide the tests free of charge.
How do home tests work?
Everlywell’s at-home test isn’t available to everyone. If you want to order a test, you have to answer questions detailing symptoms, health demographics, and risk factors like exposure or travel history.
A telemedicine doctor, from a physician network called PWN Health, reviews your answers, uses an algorithm developed by Everlywell and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and decides whether or not to prescribe a test.
If you qualify and order the test, you will receive a kit within two days (you can pay an extra $30 to overnight a test). The kit comes with instructions to swab the back of one's nose or throat. Recipients are also asked to send spit and sputum samples in a tube.
Samples are to be sent off in a pre-paid overnight package to one of the FDA-approved labs working with Everlywell. The lab tests the sample within 72 hours and subsequently sends the results to one of the physicians in the network.
The average turnaround time for a sample receipt at the lab to result out is about 48 hours, Ong says.
If your sample tests positive for SARS-COV-2 (the novel coronavirus), Everlywell will notify you by phone immediately and you’ll receive a complimentary telehealth consult with one of the physicians, Ong says. The physician advises on what steps to take next — which can range from self-isolating to going to a hospital.
If the sample is negative, you will get results by text or email, and physicians will still follow up to discuss other possible conditions causing symptoms.
Who qualifies for at-home testing?
If you aren’t showing any of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, dry cough, shortness of breath — you likely won’t be able to get your hands on a test.
“In the first few weeks, as we have limited capacity to test, we want to be very careful and want to give the test that we have, in limited quantities, to the ones that need it most," Ong says.
“If you have no symptoms or no exposure, we don't want our resources to be wasted."
But if you do report severe symptoms, such as any of the CDC’s emergency warning signs —like bluish lips or pressure in the chest — Everlywell will notify you to seek medical care immediately, and advise you not to wait for an at-home test. The test isn’t designed for healthy or extremely sick people, but those somewhere in the middle.
“In the first few weeks, as we have the capability to test, we need to be careful with regards to who gets the test, given the resources," Ong says. “I'm hoping that through the contribution of everybody in the community and the industry that we are able to ramp testing up appropriately and quickly enough so that we can get testing out to everybody that needs it.”
The anticipated release of this home test comes along as the US experiences widespread testing lags and a serious supply chain problem. Heath workers report dangerous shortages of testing tools, including nasopharyngeal swabs — like those included in Everlywell’s testing kits.
Everlywell has been scouring the globe for new sources of swabs for their kits, according to Ong.
“If the CDC and FDA say that they are moving away from nasopharyngeal swabs to oral pharyngeal swabs, or sputum or saliva, that would alleviate some of the supply chain constraints that we have today with the nasopharyngeal swabs," Ong says.
Until then, Everlywell will include a single swab and will limit testing kits to one-per-household, until supplies recoup.
As of March 19, there are no FDA approved vaccines, drugs or investigational products available to treat or prevent the virus. But that doesn’t mean you should skip testing: Knowing if you have COVID-19 is a crucial step to containing it. If you do have it, taking precautions — staying at home and away from others and engaging in CDC-backed hygiene methods — can help keep you from passing it on.
“That's why we've been seeing community spread all across America because people that are infected don't know that they have it, and they may be infecting others unknowingly," Ong says.
“In order to flatten the infection rate curve, we need to be able to test people to know if they are positive or if they are affected by influenza AB or other conditions, so that we can start to contain this pandemic.”