Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week shows that the average number of new COVID-19 cases has increased to more than 700,000 per day, over 200,000 more than a week ago.
But assume that’s an undercount.
That’s because CDC case counts are generally based on COVID-19 tests done at a testing site, clinic, or doctor’s office. These tests are analyzed by a laboratory, and laboratories are required to share results with public health departments to help track the virus regionally.
But current wait times for both scheduling clinic tests and receiving the results are taking days rather than hours. This is in part because of the recent holiday season, but also because as cases surge, people want to know if they have the virus. As a result, many people are opting for rapid home tests—many with 15-minutes results—instead of the clinic-based tests.
Unreported test results jeopardizes the accuracy and utility of the case counts being published by health departments, academic institutions, and the CDC.
“The less information on positive [cases] and spread [of the virus], the less we can advise the public,” Lori Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told Verywell.
Consumers can but don’t have to report home tests, according to a spokesperson from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And even when they do, the at-home results are not regularly added into health department case counts, Marci Layton, MD, chief medical officer of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, told Verywell.
“The challenge [reporting your results] from a public health perspective is that tracking cases through test results is usually done by results that are verifiable,” Layton said. “Home tests have always been challenging because there is no way for public health officials to verify that it was conducted correctly."
Public health experts understand that with the increase in home tests, they are likely undercounting COVID-19 cases by relying solely on laboratory-analyzed tests. In many cases, they are shifting to other measures to track the virus.
“We’re moving toward following trends, such as hospital and emergency room admissions and intensive care unit (ICU) and ventilator use," Layton said. “We are missing numbers on asymptomatic and mild cases by not having much data on home tests, but the data on severe cases is needed more.”
In spite of the hazy accuracy, most public health personnel encourage you to submit your at-home test results to your local and/or state government.
“Public health, of course, would like to have the home test data,” Michael Fraser, PhD, CEO of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers, told Verywell. “It would help us understand how quickly and where the virus is spreading. For now, we’re making assumptions.”
Some health departments are asking consumers for home test results. Summit County, Ohio, for example, offers an online form for reporting positive home tests. The same goes for Marin County in California. In Washington, D.C., you can report results through an app. Still, other health departments ask test-takers to call in with their results.
You can find out how to contact your local health department by calling 311 and your state health department by calling 211.
Freeman suggests asking if your specific health department wants your home test results, “so you don’t overwhelm already busy health departments.”
Depending on the home test you take, your results may automatically be sent to local health authorities, especially if the test notifies you of your COVID status through a website or app.
According to the FDA, all home COVID-19 antigen tests must create a mechanism for consumers to report their results to the company, whether that's via an app, website, or phone call.
While the manufacturers must report any results they receive to health departments, consumers are not required to report their results to the manufacturers. But there may be advantages to doing so, Layton says. Many companies reply to positive results with up-to-date guidance on steps to take if you test positive and precautions if you test negative.
“Whether or not you do contact your health department [or test manufacturer] with the news from your test, the most important thing you can do with your test result is to follow CDC guidance,” Layton said.
The CDC has shortened its isolation guidance for people with COVID-19 from 10 days to five days without requiring an additional test.
Expect more information on what to do with a home test result if you test positive, especially since the FDA authorized two brand new home tests at the end of 2021, and the White House plans to send out at least half a million home test kits later this month.
"It's our hope that as we move forward, data collection and sharing will become much more consistent," Freeman said.
If your home test sends you test results through a phone app or website, they should also send the results to public health departments, in which case you don't need to do anything further. Otherwise, you can find the number of your local health department by calling 311 and asking how to submit the information.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.