An iHealth COVID-19 rapid-testing kit. Credit: Amir Aziz

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the country, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) announced Wednesday that free COVID-19 tests will once again be available by mail, beginning Sept. 25. Every household will be eligible to receive up to four tests through the United State Postal Service. 

The government had stopped giving away free tests in May after President Joe Biden ended the federal public health emergency and in order to preserve the nationwide supply.

Besides the reinstatement of free COVID tests by mail, HHS, through the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), will be investing $600 million in the manufacture of COVID tests. Twelve domestic manufacturers were awarded funds, including the San Diego-based Advin Biotech, which received $4.5 million.

According to HSS, the new tests “will detect the currently circulating COVID-19 variants,” and will be intended for use through the end of 2023. The dominant variant currently is EG.5, also referred to as “Eris.”

For those with older tests at home, the FDA offers guidelines on how to check if a test is expired or if the expiration date has been extended. The new tests will also include clear instructions on how to verify expiration dates, according to HSS.

What are the symptoms of the new variant, Eris?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

While testing remains a useful tool to detect the virus, the CDC emphasizes that “vaccination remains the best protection against COVID-19-related hospitalization and death. Vaccination also reduces your chance of suffering the effects of Long COVID.” 

When will a new COVID vaccine be available?

Updated COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were approved on Sept. 12 and will start to roll out at pharmacies, hospitals, and community clinics in early October.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aren’t calling these updated shots “boosters.” Instead, the updated version is labeled as a “new” or “updated” vaccine. 

The CDC also advises that people who haven’t had a COVID vaccine in over two months (or three months after infection) should get the updated vaccine along with a flu shot.

Where to get vaccinated or tested for COVID in Oakland

As of Aug. 1, Alameda County paused its PCR testing until further notice due to “restructuring our health services to best meet your needs.”

Some community testing sites are shifting their services from providing free testing and vaccinations for everyone to focusing on only those who are underinsured or uninsured. The testing sites linked below will provide services regardless of immigration status.

  • In Oakland, Color Health is operating seven community testing sites for people who are either symptomatic or were exposed to someone with the virus. The hours vary by location
  • La Clínica de la Raza is currently only testing underinsured and uninsured patients. PCR tests, as well as at-home test kits, are free for this group. Register on Clinica’s website for testing site locations and hours.
  • Roots Community Health Center in East Oakland is open to all members of the public on Thursdays and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The clinic offers both antigen and PCR testing. Roots also provide the Pfizer, Moderna, and Novanax COVID-19 vaccines and the bivalent booster. Pre-register online or register on-site.
  • The Alameda County Public Health Department also has a list of community sites across the county that offer rapid testing, COVID-19 treatments, and vaccines. 

Health insurance providers are no longer federally required to cover over-the-counter COVID-19 test kits at pharmacies, but California is continuing payments to participating pharmacies for these tests at least through Nov. 11. Residents should check with their local pharmacy to confirm the availability of tests.

Under California law, those enrolled in a health-care plan will also continue to receive PCR testing, vaccines, and up to eight at-home testing kits per month, free of charge. The free resources will continue for at least the next six months as long as COVID services are provided through their health-care network. For example, Kaiser members can order up to eight tests monthly, in person or via mail. 

Medi-Cal beneficiaries will continue to receive COVID testing, vaccines, and treatments free of charge while the federal supplies last.

Vaccines, treatments, and at-home tests will remain accessible for most Medicare patients. However, PCR testing will only be covered when ordered by a health-care provider. Those with only Medicare Part A (hospital-based care) will no longer have access to the free at-home test kits.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.