The U.S. government will begin mailing free COVID-19 tests again after wastewater surveillance showed a spike in SARS-CoV-2 virus levels this past summer.
The federal government has suspended and renewed the popular program several times since it began in January 2022. Through the program, the U.S. Postal Service has shipped more than 755 million home test kits.
The USPS program opened Monday alongside Home Test to Treat, the federal government’s less well-known telehealth program that provides free tests and treatment to underinsured people.
Pharmacies across El Paso also began rolling out the new COVID-19 vaccine, an updated formula that offers protection against newer strains of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone six months and older get the new vaccine for the fall and winter “virus season,” when there’s a heightened spread of COVID-19, RSV and flu viruses.
El Paso’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a slight uptick in new cases over the seven-day average with 32 people hospitalized as of Tuesday.
The number of COVID-19 cases, however, is likely an undercount because people are not required to report their home test results to the City of El Paso Health Department, though the city encourages residents to submit a self-disclosure form. City and county health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said in August that most of the county’s COVID-19 case count comes from reports made by hospitals and health care providers, and few come from self-disclosure reports.
El Paso’s wastewater data shows virus levels easing in some sites, but a spike at another.
Two ways to order free COVID-19 tests
Anyone with a U.S. address, regardless of insurance status, can order free COVID-19 test kits at special.usps.com/testkits. There is a limit of one order per residential address and each order contains four rapid tests. Orders will ship starting the week of Oct. 2.
People who test positive for COVID-19, or who do not have COVID-19 but are uninsured or underinsured, can enroll in the National Institutes of Health’s Home Test to Treat program at test2treat.org. Enrollees can receive free tests, telemedicine and treatment. People on Medicare, Medicaid and the Veteran Affairs health care system are eligible for this program, too.
Where to get the newest COVID-19 vaccine
Updated COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are available at pharmacies in El Paso. The vaccine from Novavax may also arrive later this fall. Patients ages six months and older can get both the COVID-19 and flu shots at the same time.
The CDC and public health experts recommend people get the COVID-19 vaccine:
- at least two months after their last COVID-19 vaccine if they are ages 5 and older.
- up to three months after a recent COVID-19 infection.
People ages 60 and older, as well as parents of infants, should talk to their doctor about timing for the RSV vaccine, which protects against respiratory syncytial virus. The federal Food and Drug Administration approved the first RSV vaccine in May and there is not yet consensus in the medical community about whether to get the RSV vaccine at the same time as the COVID-19 and flu shots. The CDC recommends the RSV vaccine for these two demographics because they are the most at risk of hospitalization.
Like the flu vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine is updated each season as viruses mutate, new strains circulate and protection from the previous vaccine wanes. The CDC recommends getting the COVID-19 vaccine to reduce the chances and effects of having long COVID.
Symptoms of long COVID – such as chronic fatigue and brain fog – can affect people of all ages and last months to a year after infection.
The updated vaccine is free for most people through private health insurance and Medicare. People without health insurance can get the COVID-19 vaccine for free at pharmacies and clinics participating in the CDC’s Bridge Access Program. Search for a participating clinic at vaccines.gov.