Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — There are no at-home COVID-19 testing kits on the shelves of Jolley's Pharmacy in West Jordan because the wholesale cost for the few that pharmacist Tad Jolley can find from his supplier is more than the $100 he charges customers to get the test there.
"They're so expensive that it's not worth it to bring them in yet," Jolley said. A quick check of his supplier's inventory Thursday found only a single at-home test in stock. "Yeah, my cost is $103 for one test. So it's like, I'm not going to order that. I'd have to mark it up 20 bucks to sell it to make anything and nobody's going to buy it."
At-home COVID-19 tests, especially those that are affordable, are in short supply in many places around the country with the new school year and the return of some employees to the workplace driving up demand for a faster, more convenient alternative to government-operated testing sites.
Expanding access to at-home COVID-19 testing
President Joe Biden's administration announced plans to pour an additional $1 billion into expanding both at-home rapid COVID-19 testing and access to free testing, with a goal of having 200 million at-home tests available a month by December, a four-fold increase, while doubling the number of pharmacies offering free tests.
Currently, there are some 10,000 community based sites around the country, including many in Utah, that provide free testing for the virus that is paid for by the federal government. Another 10,000 pharmacies also test for free under the program, a number that will jump to 20,000 with the additional spending.
The $1 billion pledge is on top of $2 billion promised in September to boost at-home test availability.
"Together, the steps we're taking will ensure that every American, no matter their income level or ZIP code, can access accurate, convenient, and affordable testing," Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, told reporters, adding that for a new at-home test, the price tag is expected to be under $10.
Zients said the administration's pledge to buy more at-home tests from multiple manufacturers to distribute to community health centers, food pantries and other places that serve those in need will ramp up manufacturing, and "pricing should come down as economies of scale are achieved and competition kicks in."
The Utah Department of Health had little to say about at-home testing for the virus.
"As at-home testing kits have become more available and more reliable, they will play a role in our response in the future," state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said. "We are working to determine how to incorporate at-home tests into our larger testing strategy."
That includes, Hudachko said, "how to leverage existing relationships with local health departments and community health workers to ensure tests get to the communities that need them the most." The state operates testing sites throughout Utah, including some run by contractors.
Gov. Spencer Cox said last week Utah is boosting its COVID-19 testing so residents no longer have to wait in line for hours at drive-up locations and is also trying out a new process to make it easier for travelers to get the results they need.
The governor said the state "fell short of expectations" in meeting what he described as about a tenfold increase in demand between June 1 and Sept. 1, when 19,000 tests were conducted. The state has hired more than 200 new staffers and set up 12 additional testing sites, Cox said, reducing waits to no more than 20 minutes at most.
Should you use an at-home COVID-19 test?
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, a medical doctor, said he's not opposed to people testing themselves at home.
"I think everybody just needs to make their own decision if it makes sense for them. It's not something that we're urging people to get," the state lawmaker said, adding the array of home testing options can be confusing for consumers. "I don't know the names of all the different ones."
Some at-home tests, he said, require supervision by a health care provider through a telehealth visit while others may take too long to arrive after being ordered online or not report results as quickly as needed. There's also a concern about whether the results get reported to public health agencies, so cases can be tracked.
"How do you balance out the convenience and ease of just doing it at home, which is a huge step in the right direction, versus, 'Oh, some of the times they did it wrong, so it wasn't the right answer' and 'Oh, you know, some of the times they bought the wrong kind,'" along with questions about who may have been exposed, Ward said.
Despite any drawbacks, though, he said the at-home tests are ultimately another tool in combating COVID-19.
"There's going to be all kinds of little issues with these tests. But I think the benefit will outweigh the annoyingness of those issues, and so that's good. Every new tool that we get is going to have issues. So I'm glad they're here," Ward said. "We'll get used to them as we use them."
Jolley said he'd rather see Utahns be tested for COVID-19 where there's accountability for their results, suggesting at-home testing kits may make it easier for people to lie if they test positive but still want to use expensive concert tickets or do something else where they're required to prove they're free of the virus.
"It depends on the situation," the pharmacist said, noting the option of testing at home would be "awesome" for people who test frequently because they're living with someone who is immunocompromised or otherwise particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Jolley's Pharmacy in West Jordan is not able to accept insurance for the $100 COVID-19 tests available there, so while Jolley said he receives lots of calls every day about testing, only two or three people a week are willing to pay what he's charging.
But offering the tests for free under the federal program means not being compensated for the time it takes to administer the tests as well as dealing with the additional paperwork, Jolley said, something he's not interested in doing.
"I'm a for-profit business," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."