DC expands availability and options for free COVID-19 testing

D.C. is expanding the Health Department’s free coronavirus testing program on Wednesday to include COVID-19 antigen tests that people can pick up to perform at home to get results within 15 minutes.

“We’ll have these at eight libraries; we’ll have initially 1,000 kits per library per day,” said Patrick Ashley, senior deputy director at DC Health. “Individuals can pick up two kits, which is a total of four tests per person, per day, at the library.”

Each of the city’s eight Wards will have a library providing the free, rapid tests to people showing proof of residency.

“And these are in addition to our current ‘Test Yourself’ program that we have operating at 36 libraries throughout the district,” he said, referencing the city’s current PCR testing program.

PCR test results developed in laboratories take a few days, but provide very definitive answers as to whether someone currently has COVID-19. Antigen tests are slightly less specific but give immediate results, so people can take action if needed to help reduce the spread of the virus in the community.

“Most importantly, the reason to take an antigen test is if you’re symptomatic,” Ashley said.

“And we want you to take an antigen test kit within the first couple of days of you being symptomatic because we know that antigen tests are far more likely to show a positive result, a reliable positive result — within the first couple of days of symptoms.”

COVID-19 tests of all sorts are not always easy to get.

“It is so frustrating to not be able to find a PCR test or rapid test anywhere,” said
Nicole West, who arrived at the Shaw Neighborhood Library on Tuesday, after all available tests were distributed.

“Everybody’s going to see family for the holidays and friends and just in the interest of trying to be as safe as possible — make sure that we’re all tested. And it’s not going as we’d hoped,” she said with a sigh.

D.C.’s “Test Yourself” program involves people picking up a PCR test to administer at home before returning it to a drop off location to await laboratory results.

“We’ve used them before. We’re really grateful the library’s doing this actually,” Kinara Flagg said, while waiting in line to receive a test on Tuesday at the Shaw Neighborhood Library. “It’s made testing and drop-off pretty easy.”

Flagg and her family members have used the tests repeatedly to rule out COVID-19 being responsible for cold-like symptoms and after being in contact with someone who tested positive.

They typically received test results within two or three days — four days was the longest.

Sam, who preferred his last name not be used and is also from the Shaw neighborhood, attested to the convenience of the library’s PCR tests.

“It’s a great setup they have here,” Sam said. He needed testing previously to go on honeymoon. “They say 72 hours for results. I think we got ours back in like 28, 30 … we needed them pretty quick. So that was a good thing.”

The quick-result antigen tests don’t involve documentation of results like the PCR tests do, but Ashley said that’s crucial information people should report on the DC Health website.

“Unlike traditional laboratories, which are required to report this information to us, because you’re taking these at home, we have no knowledge of you taking those tests,” Ashley said. “And so for our surveillance purposes and understanding what the disease is doing in the community, it’s really important — both those positive and negative results.”

You can find a full list of testing locations offered by various community entities on the D.C. Department of Health website.

A chart showing the library testing locations in D.C. (Courtesy DC Health)
DC Health is offering take-home COVID-19 tests at libraries that give you results in 15 minutes. (WTOP/Kristi King)
Line of D.C. residents waiting for COVID testing kits.
The line to get COVID-19 tests from a D.C. library on Tuesday. (WTOP/Kristi King)
People are waiting in line to get free 15-minute COVID-19 test kits that they can take home. (WTOP/Kristi King)
Directions for the take-home PCR tests are posted outside of the library. (WTOP/Kristi King)
DC Health ran out of free COVID-19 tests to pass out. (WTOP/Kristi King)
Patrick Ashley, senior deputy director of DC Health, speaks outside of the library’s take-home testing event. (WTOP/Kristi King)
Information posted about the take-home tests. (WTOP/Kristi King)
Line of D.C. residents waiting for COVID testing kits.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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