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COVID Test Kits Protected From Price Gouging, If You Can Find One

A closeup of an orange and white box that reads "iHealth Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test. Self-Test At Home Results in 15 Mins. FDA, Emergency Use Authorization."
An example of a COVID test handed out at Daniel Webster Middle School in Mar Vista.
(Suzanne Levy
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The unprecedented surge in new cases has led to a COVID-19 test kit shortage at many retail stores. Over the weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that gives consumers price-gouging protections by prohibiting sellers from marking up prices on at-home test kits by more than 10%. The executive order also gives law enforcement additional tools to take action against price gougers by making it a misdemeanor.

Rapid antigen tests can be taken at home with results available in minutes, but they are less sensitive than PCR tests, which are analyzed in a lab and are more accurate because they can detect even trace amounts of the coronavirus. It will take a few days to receive your results, but free PCR tests are now available for pick up through sites run by the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health.

A Push From The White House, Too

The nationwide test shortage prompted the Biden administration on Monday to begin requiring private health insurance companies to cover some at-home COVID test kits per month starting Jan. 15 — if you can find any. Each person on the policy can have eight tests covered per month.

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To increase access to test kits, the federal government will launch a website later this month to begin making 500 million at-home COVID kits available through the mail to people who want them.

Testing Logjams

In the meantime, frustrated people seeking COVID tests are clogging L.A.'s already overrun hospital emergency rooms. Federal law requires everyone who comes into an emergency room to be triaged. If they are admitted, patients must be tested for COVID.

Hospitals need those rapid tests because many COVID patients are only found with an initial emergency room screening. Statewide, it’s unclear how many of California’s coronavirus patients are hospitalized because they needed treatment for the virus or were admitted for a different reason. L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week that more than half of the county’s COVID patients are in the hospital for an unrelated illness.

It can be a tricky distinction to draw, because COVID often compounds underlying health conditions such as diabetes, and patients frequently arrive in the emergency room for multiple reasons.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.

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