Eligible adults can now receive free at-home rapid tests, telehealth sessions and at-home treatments for both COVID and influenza through a newly expanded federal government program.
Initially launched as a pilot program in select areas, the Home Test to Treat program from the National Institutes of Health is now available nationwide at test2treat.org.
Any adult with a current positive test for COVID or flu can enroll to receive free telehealth care and, if prescribed, medication delivered to their home. Follow-up care is also possible through the treatment process.
"If something comes up and [patients] want to have a follow up, they can return for a second telemedicine visit," said Andrew Weitz, Ph.D., NIH lead for the Home Test to Treat program.
"We actually haven't seen this happen at all yet," he added.
Those not currently positive for COVID or flu can have free tests delivered if they are uninsured or insured through select federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, the VA health care system, or Indian Health Services.
"I think that these [telehealth] delivery mechanisms are going to be absolutely crucial to unburden the in-person offices and the lines that we have and wait times," said Dr. Michael Mina, chief science officer at eMed, the company that helped implement the new Home Test to Treat program.
COVID tests can also be ordered through a separate program, covidtests.gov, which relaunched a few months ago allowing orders for an additional four tests per household, or eight tests for those who haven’t already placed an order yet this fall.
As the largest source of funding for medical research in the world, the NIH is also pursuing its research-oriented mission to explore how technology can be leveraged to improve health care access more broadly.
"We're doing this to both benefit public health, but at the same time, being the NIH, which is really a research organization, one of our aims through this program is to better understand how technologies like at-home tests and telemedicine can improve health care access for people across the country," Weitz said.
The program is set to expire in the spring of 2024, but it remains to be seen if the initiative will potentially transfer to the private sector.
"Whether or not a program like this could get enough interest from the public to be sustained by the commercial sector or is this something that needs sustained government investment... those are the types of research questions that we're looking to answer from this program," Weitz said.
The program will initially provide the Pfizer COVID-19 & Flu Home Test, the first FDA-authorized test that can detect both viruses in one swab at home.
Treatment for respiratory illnesses must typically begin within a short window of onset of symptoms or as soon as possible.
"By the time most people get to the doctor for [respiratory illnesses], they're already outside of the therapeutic window where treatment could have helped and so then they're kind of stuck, hoping that the body is going to clear the virus but some end up in the hospital," Mina said.
Medication from the program delivered to the home will be available at no cost regardless of insurance status. If picked up from a pharmacy, patients may be asked to pay out of pocket or provide their insurance, but can ask the pharmacy if they have government procured treatments available at no cost.
"For acute respiratory viruses like COVID and influenza, really starting treatment as soon as possible after infection will help you to limit the growth that the virus will make in the first place and therefore help to limit the damage that it does to the cells of the body," Mina said.
About the Author: This report was written for ABC News by Youri Benadjaoud.