We’ve been hearing it from health officials and political leaders alike: One of the ways we can slow the spread of the coronavirus is by knowing who has it. But a lack of available testing kits at doctors’ offices and hospitals across the country has made this feel impossible. It’s been stressful to not know which friends and family members might have this illness without even knowing it, and the virus’s symptoms (cough, fever) are so similar to the flu and the common cold that it’s hard to tell who actually needs to be tested.
Everlywell, a digital health company that creates home test kits for everything from food sensitivities to STDs, saw this predicament America is in and decided to step in. The company announced this week that it will have 30,000 coronavirus test kits available for purchase beginning Monday, March 23, and said in a release that it’s working with other labs to ramp up the number of available kits to test “a quarter of a million people weekly.”
As of right now, the test is $135 to cover the manufacturing costs. The company, which was featured on Shark Tank in 2017, said it’s not putting any cash from those tests into its own pocket and that it’s trying to get help from the federal government to make the tests totally free.
“Everlywell was founded to give people affordable, convenient access to lab testing," Julia Cheek, Everlywell’s founder and CEO says in the release. “Never has our mission been more important. Our team has been working around the clock with top scientists and laboratories in the nation to develop a test that we will make available at the lowest price possible while covering our costs, at no profit to the company.”
If you have symptoms like a fever, cough and shortness of breath, and want to get tested by Everlywell, you can request a kit online after completing a questionnaire that asks for details on things like how you’re feeling and who you may have been in contact with. The test has to be prescribed to you, so a telemedicine doc from Everlywell partner PWNHealth (a national network of physicians) reviews the responses with the CDC’s criteria for testing. If approved, the test is then shipped to your door in two days (or overnighted for an extra $30) with instructions about how to take the test and package the sample to send back to one of the company’s FDA-compliant lab partners. Within 48 hours, Everlywell will let users know the results of their test and, if it’s positive, will set them up with a doctor for a consultation through telehealth technology.
It sounds efficient, but Karl Hess, PharmD., Chapman University's Director of Community Pharmacy Practice Innovations, isn’t convinced. “While this process should prevent unnecessary testing in otherwise healthy and asymptomatic individuals who are ‘just curious’ about their COVID-19 status, individuals may also be able to falsify information on their screening form in order to get tested,” Hess told us. Great point.
Having more tests available is wonderful in theory, and Everlywell says that all of its labs and lab partners “are complying with FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization for COVID-19 testing,” meaning on the lab’s side, things are up to par. The problem, however, is with the rest of us. There have been reports of false positives and false negatives with coronavirus tests in hospitals because of human error—something that seems more than possible when we're doing DIY testing at home.
“The test comes with a single swab to collect samples in the back of the nose and throat (nasopharynx), which is the preferred method of sample collection per the CDC,” Hess says. “However, self-administration of a nasopharyngeal swab is difficult and painful if you’re not properly trained and may cause injury.”
Hess adds that the test also collects spit and sputum (a saliva-mucus hybrid we cough up when we have a chest infection) samples as backup to the nose and throat swab, but according to the CDC, spit should only be collected if you have an active cough, which not everyone with the virus has.
Adding more tests to the government’s pool is a good thing, Hess says, but his bottom line? Everlywell’s screening process is essentially based on the honor system and that could lead to unnecessary testing and a waste of tests that should go to people who actually need them—plus, you could hurt yourself. Add to that the fact that Everlywell is still a company that manufactures at-home tests as a business model and “has a financial interest in selling testing kits,” as Hess puts it, we’re not totally sold.
If you’re worried that you have coronavirus, call your doctor, local emergency health clinic or hospital and report your symptoms. From there, they can give you a recommendation on whether to come in to be checked out in person or to stay home and self-quarantine. Stay safe and wash your hands, everyone.