Why pay money for something you can get for free? (Image: Archi Banal)
Why pay money for something you can get for free? (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietySeptember 7, 2023

PSA: You (probably) don’t need to pay for Covid tests

Why pay money for something you can get for free? (Image: Archi Banal)
Why pay money for something you can get for free? (Image: Archi Banal)

Have you been paying for your Covid-19 rapid antigen tests? Would you rather get them for free? Here’s how.

Perhaps you’ve got a niggling sore throat or you’ve woken up with a fever. Maybe someone you live with has tested positive for Covid-19. Or you might be wanting to be extra careful ahead of visiting an older relative or immunocompromised friend. Rapid antigen tests (RATs) remain a handy tool – in fact one of the only tools left – for reducing the spread of Covid-19 in Aotearoa.

For many people, the main motivation for continuing precautions has been keeping other people safe. It may no longer be mandatory to mask up in healthcare facilities or isolate if you test positive, but Covid-19 is very much still out there. This week, 3,625 new cases were reported and there were 11 more deaths attributed to the virus. 

“RATs are the recommended testing method for people with Covid-19 symptoms or who are household contacts because of the fast results they provide,” says Te Whatu Ora’s group manager for outbreak response testing, Celeste Gilmour. “This enables people at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19 to get any medical treatment and care they need quickly, which helps to reduce the risk of hospitalisation and widespread transmission of the disease throughout the community.”

But while RATs clearly remain useful, they can also be prohibitively priced. Some retailers charge an eye-watering $29.95 for boxes of five or a staggering $5.95 for a single test. Thankfully, you probably don’t actually need to spend a cent on a test – and who doesn’t love free things?

An antigen test (rapid test device) showing a negative result (Photo Illustration: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

How do we access free tests?

In March last year, the government announced that free rapid antigen tests could be ordered from a new Ministry of Health website and then collected from sites nationwide. Even now, there are hundreds of places to pick up free RATs around the country.

You can collect free RATs from an eclectic mix of locations: chemists, pharmacies, vaccination centres, drive through testing centres, health and medical centres, Māori health providers, community health services, superclinics, Countdown pharmacies, Chemist Warehouse, marae, GPs and more. 

This week there were 507 listed pick-up sites around the country, but a spokesperson for Te Whatu Ora told The Spinoff that “the number of sites can vary depending on regional demand for RATs”. To find your closest collection site, use the Healthpoint website’s search function. During earlier stages of the pandemic, you were required to pre-order tests, but these days there’s no need – just turn up.

“As of early September, Te Whatu Ora has 37.2 million RATs available for use by healthcare providers and the public,” says Gilmour. Divided up across the population, that’s around seven RATs each. 

It’s worth noting that the Healthpoint website is infuriatingly clunky – the antithesis of user friendly web-design. For example, if one is looking for free RATs in the South Island town of Riverton, the closest pick up location listed is in Dunedin – almost three hours away. But the map featured on the same page shows a pharmacy with free tests available in Riverton’s town centre. Your best bet when it comes to using the site accurately (and to save you making an unnecessary long-distance drive) is to check both the list and map in the search results.

The Spinoff contacted a random selection of listed pick-up locations in both cities and rural parts of the country to check whether they had free tests available at the moment – all of them did. This might not always be the case, so it would be worth calling ahead to ensure wherever you’re planning to pick up from actually has stock. And if it isn’t immediately obvious where the free tests are when you’re at the pick-up spot, just ask the staff.

Rapid antigen tests (Image: Tina Tiller)

If you’re a jet-setting type, international airports like Auckland and Christchurch currently have free rapid antigen tests available for arriving international passengers. You may as well grab a box if you’re making your way through arrivals. And good news if you live in a city – it’s unlikely you’ll have to drive much longer than 10 minutes to find a free box.

But for some of us, there are more barriers to access

While more populous parts of the country are relatively abundant with RAT pick-up locations, other areas could be described as RAT deserts. Mirroring rural New Zealand’s more limited access to healthcare resources in general, pick up locations are scarcer in places outside the main centres.

As an example, there are three times as many pick-up spots in Central Auckland as there are across the entire Southland region. In Cambridge, the closest pick-up location is in Morrinsville, a 27-minute drive away. Even if you can find a place to pick up tests, the vast majority of locations only open between 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. If you’re wanting to check whether that tickle in your throat is Covid-19 or not, it might not be entirely practical (or desirable) to drive an hour return trip during working hours to pick up tests.

For that reason, University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles would like to see RATs made more accessible across the country. Her advice, especially for those without easy access to free tests due to location or inflexible work schedules, is to keep a stash of tests on hand at home. “It would be great if people could keep a few packs around the house for when they need them, rather than having to pick them up once symptomatic,” she says. This could mean picking up a few boxes when you next make a trip into town, liaising with friends or whānau to pick up a bunch to share, or ordering online for a delivery.

A positive RAT test
A sight no one wants to see – a positive rapid antigen test. (Photo: Supplied)

Delivery, you say?

Gilmour advises that “people who live rurally, have a disability, are immunocompromised or experiencing some other difficulty collecting RATs, may be eligible for additional help, including delivery if necessary”. You can call 0800 222 478 to find out whether you’re eligible for this.

How should I spend the money I’ve saved by getting free RATs?

Instead of spending $29.95 on a box of five you could instead buy two bags of potatoes, or a movie ticket paired with a BYO bag of lollies, or three giant jars of pickles from my local Persian shop, or a decent bottle of prosecco, or a pair of good-quality stockings. With the $5.95 you’ll save on a single test you could buy a five-pack of Mi Goreng noodles, a pie and (the cheapest) canned drink from the dairy, or a bowl of fries from your local RSA.

I’m still not even sure I’m doing the test right…

First, swab the inside of your mouth, “along the cheeks and towards the throat,” says Wiles, but there’s “no need to go so far as to make you gag”. Then do the inside of your nose as normal using the same swab. Wiles has a game-changing tip for testing tamariki: “I think swabbing the mouth rather than the nose is also a good strategy for kids as it can be very hard and unpleasant to swab little noses.”

But, she adds, make sure you’re waiting at least 30 minutes if you’ve eaten or drunk anything (except water) before swabbing your mouth. And record your results on the My Covid Record site. Happy (free) testing!

Keep going!