By Michael Ollove
New Jersey announced this month that it is joining New Hampshire and Washington state in sending free COVID-19 testing kits to the homes of residents who request them.
New Hampshire made rapid tests available late last month, while Washington state began offering them to residents of nine counties starting in mid-November.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts announced that it will send 2 million free rapid test kits to 102 cities and towns in the state that have the highest proportion of families living in poverty, so officials can distribute to them residents.
Unlike those states, New Jersey is sending lab tests that residents must mail back.
New Jersey has experienced a steep rise in cases since early November and an accompanying increase in hospitalizations, particularly among older residents. State health officials said new hospitalizations have climbed by 81 percent in early December.
In announcing the availability of the test kits, New Jersey State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli stressed the importance of testing to track and contain the virus.
“With cases rising and holiday gatherings and travel, you want to protect yourself, especially if you are not feeling well or believe you may have been exposed, even if you don’t have any symptoms,” Persichilli said at a COVID-19 news conference with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
Persichilli said the self-administered PCR tests are the result of a partnership between the state and Vault Medical Services, a provider of diagnostic services, including COVID-19 testing. Persichilli said the program supplements COVID-19 testing sites throughout the state and is aimed at those who may have trouble getting themselves to those facilities.
The two main COVID-19 diagnostic tests are PCR and antigen. The former is considered to be more accurate. The New Jersey health department recommends that anyone who is symptomatic and receives a negative antigen test follow-up with the more reliable PCR test.
New Jersey residents can order the free test kit through Vault, whether they are symptomatic or not. A kit is then shipped overnight via UPS. Recipients can connect virtually with a Vault representative for instructions on how to take the test. Users should not eat, drink or smoke for 30 minutes before providing a saliva sample, which they do while being observed by the representative.
The kit includes pre-paid UPS packaging for the return of the sample. Vault says residents should receive test results within two days after the sample is received in the lab.
Persichilli said test results would automatically be shared with public health authorities to assist in contact tracing.
“This new program increases the availability and accessibility of testing, particularly for those who may not be able to get to a testing site,” she said.
On Dec. 21, President Joe Biden said his administration was implementing the Defense Authorization Act to produce rapid tests “to make it easier to get tested and get tested for free.” He also said that starting in January, the federal government will provide 500 million rapid tests to Americans for free and will create websites where people can order them to be shipped to their homes.