Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 testing is a powerful tool for limiting the spread of the virus and getting back to normal life.

  • People with Medicare Part B can get up to eight tests per calendar month from participating pharmacies and health care providers for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

This article was updated  in September 2022, after the federal government announced the end of the free mail order at-home COVID-19 test program.

As we navigate the ongoing pandemic, COVID-19 testing continues to be a powerful tool for containing the spread, especially as new variants emerge, and getting back to doing the things we love. But for older adults, the constantly changing recommendations around testing can feel overwhelming. This guide is designed to help you determine when and where to get tested—and what to do if you test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

And when it comes to the cost of COVID tests, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has granted Medicare beneficiaries the ability to purchase FDA authorized over-the-counter (OTC) COVID-19 tests for zero cost. This is the first time that Medicare has covered OTC self-administered test at no cost to beneficiaries. As part of this new initiative, payment is made from Medicare directly to participating pharmacies and other health care providers. 

But first, it’s important to understand the different types of COVID-19 tests used to detect an active infection.

What are the two main types of COVID-19 tests for seniors?

PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test: The PCR test was the first created to detect active COVID-19 infections, and it's still the most widely used today due to its high accuracy rate. Samples are most often collected via a swab inserted into the nose, which is then sent to a laboratory. The turnaround time for PCR test results can vary from one day to up to a week.

Antigen tests (or "rapid tests"): COVID-19 antigen tests are used at testing sites and are available over-the-counter for home use. Like the PCR test, samples are collected via a nasal swab. The sample is processed through a small cartridge, similar to a home pregnancy test, and the results can be viewed within 15 minutes. Antigen tests are considered less sensitive than PCR tests and are more likely to produce false negative results. However, in people with COVID-19 symptoms, they can be a useful tool for confirming a current infection.

When should you get tested for COVID-19?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should get tested if you:

  • Have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Have had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 (You should get tested at least 5 days after your last close contact with that person. The date of the last close contact is considered day 0).
  • Are not vaccinated for COVID-19, and you’ve been identified for expanded community screening for the virus.
  • Are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and you’ve been asked to get tested by your school; workplace; healthcare provider; or state, tribal, local, or territorial health department.

What about testing before travel? If you're exhibiting signs of illness, of course, it’s best to stay home. If you're feeling well, be sure to plan ahead by checking the testing requirements of your airline and your destination.

Where can seniors find free COVID-19 tests?

COVID-19 tests are now more available than ever. You can even acquire them through:

  • Local pharmacies. The federal government is providing free over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at no cost for people with Medicare Part B, including those enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. People with Medicare can get up to eight (8) tests per calendar month from participating pharmacies and health care providers for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.  As of early April, the national pharmacy chains participating include: Albertsons Companies, Inc., Costco Pharmacy, CVS, Food Lion, Giant Food, The Giant Company, Hannaford Pharmacies, H-E-B Pharmacy, Hy-Vee Pharmacy, Kroger Family of Pharmacies, Rite Aid Corp., Shop & Stop, Walgreens and Walmart. If you don't have Medicare, many pharmacies have partnered with state and local governments to offer fast, convenient COVID-19 testing for seniors. These include large chains like CVS Health and Walgreens as well as local, independent pharmacies. Call your nearest pharmacy or visit their website to learn more about what they offer.

Other COVID-19 testing options include:

  • Access to no-cost COVID-19 tests through health care providers at over 20,000 testing sites nationwide. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers this searcable database of community-based testing sites.
  • Access to lab-based PCR tests and antigen tests performed by a laboratory when the test is ordered by a physician, physician assistant, pharmacist, or other authorized health care professional at no cost through Medicare.
  • In addition to accessing a COVID-19 laboratory test ordered by a health care professional, people with Medicare can also access one lab-performed test without an order and cost-sharing during the public health emergency.
  • Find more resources at https://www.covidtests.gov/ (check the "Other Testing Resources" section or call 1-800-232-0233, TTY 1-888-720-7489).

Here are some other settings in your area that may provide testing services:

  • Community health centers: Your local health center can be a convenient way to get COVID-19 testing. They'll handle the work of determining if your health insurance plan covers the cost of testing and whether there are any out-of-pocket costs. Find a health center near you.
  • Urgent care clinics: Beyond treating minor illnesses and injuries, many urgent care centers offer COVID-19 testing for seniors. Some allow you to conduct a virtual or phone visit with a provider first. If they determine you need to get tested, they’ll help you book an appointment. Be sure to call ahead to inquire about testing procedures before you visit your local clinic.

You’ve tested positive for COVID-19. Now what?

According to the latest guidance from the CDC, if your PCR or rapid test comes back positive—regardless of your vaccination status—you should isolate from other people. This guidance also applies if you’re awaiting test results or if you have COVID-19 symptoms (particularly if you’ve had recent close contact with someone who has COVID-19).

What does it mean to isolate? Isolating for COVID-19 means staying home until it’s safe for you to be around other people. You should do so for at least 5 full days. Day 0 is the day your symptoms started. If you’re asymptomatic (without symptoms), Day 0 is the day you received your positive test result.

During isolation, you should:

  • Monitor your symptoms. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience trouble breathing or other warning signs.
  • Separate yourself from other household members as much as you can, including pets. Use a separate bathroom if you are able to. Don’t share personal items like eating utensils, cups, and towels.
  • Ventilate your home as much as possible (e.g., open windows if weather permits).
  • Wear a well-fitting mask when you can’t avoid other people in your house.

If your symptoms are improving and you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours by the end of the 5-day period, you can end isolation. At that point, you should continue to wear a well-fitting mask around others at home and in public for five more days. Avoid places where you can’t wear a mask, such as restaurants.

Should you test again after your five-day isolation period? According to the CDC, if you have access to a home rapid (antigen) test, you can use it toward the end of your isolation period if you want to. Use it only if your symptoms are improving and you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours. If the result is positive, continue to isolate for an additional five days.

For more details on testing and isolation, visit the CDC website.

Need help getting a COVID-19 test?

Depending on where you live, you may qualify for assistance in making COVID-19 test appointments and getting to and from testing locations. You may even be able to get food delivered to your home if you’re in isolation. Some tips for getting the help you need:

  • If you have trouble booking appointments online, contact the pharmacy or other testing site directly to request assistance. You might also ask a tech-savvy family member, friend, or neighbor to help you.
  • Use Eldercare Locator to find transportation and other support services.
  • Visit Meals on Wheels for meal delivery options in your ZIP code. Services like Instacart allow you to order groceries online from area markets and have them delivered right to your door.
  • Dial "211" on your phone to be connected with support resources for older adults in your geographic area.

Vaccination is your best defense against COVID-19

Getting vaccinated—or getting your booster shots if you're already vaccinated—continues to be one of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself, your family, and your community from COVID-19. For older adults and those with chronic health conditions, the current COVID-19 vaccines and boosters have proven to be highly effective at reducing severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

Want more information on COVID-19 and older adults? Visit our COVID-19 resource hub.