The weather is getting colder, holiday gatherings are coming up, and there’s the now-familiar possibility of another COVID-19 surge on the horizon. Some New Yorkers may be looking to stock up on at-home tests or dusting off the ones under their bathroom sinks — just in case.

Unfortunately, last month, President Joe Biden suspended a federal giveaway program that allowed each American household to order up to 16 of those tests for free. At the time, a Biden administration official attributed the move to a lack of congressional funding to replenish the federal stockpile of home test kits. Republicans blocked efforts to renew this funding earlier this year, which would also help pay for vaccines and treatments.

But if you live in New York City, this dearth doesn’t mean you have to start budgeting for at-home tests, which can cost about $25 for a pack of two. Plenty of ways still exist for getting these kits for free. And if you stocked up months ago and still have some tests on hand, there’s more good news — the expiration dates on those boxes may no longer apply.

Even with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, public health experts said testing remains an important tool for limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Rapid at-home tests, in particular, “can help people figure out if they have COVID and need to isolate more quickly than they might otherwise if they had to go to a health facility,” said Dr. Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at CUNY.

Still, these tests tend to be the most accurate a couple of days after someone is infected or once they already have symptoms, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends testing more than once with an at-home kit — a practice that could get expensive if you have to pay out of pocket.

And that may become the norm next year due to an expected change in federal policy.

How to find out when your COVID tests expire

If you reach for a COVID test kit that you’ve been storing since last winter and find that its expiration date has passed, you may be tempted to play it safe and throw it out – or just roll the dice and hope it still works as intended.

There is a better way.

Many of the companies that produce FDA-approved home tests have extended their expiration dates after collecting more data on how the kits perform over time.

The FDA has created a searchable chart where you can look up the brand of the test kit you have and whether the expiration date has been extended. If your kit has been updated, there will be a link to click to find out the new expiration date, based on the lot number of your test kit.

How to get COVID tests for free… for now

Using your insurance

The Biden administration may not be sending out test kits directly anymore, but a federal rule is still in place that most insurance plans have to cover up to eight test kits per individual member each month for free.

This policy is only in effect as long as the federal government keeps renewing the public health emergency around COVID-19. The state of emergency has so far been extended every 90 days since it was put in place in early 2020 — most recently, through Jan. 11, 2023. But researchers at the health policy nonprofit KFF are anticipating that it could be allowed to lapse sometime next year. When that happens, health plans could stop covering home test kits altogether, or require a copay.

In other words, take advantage of this perk while it lasts.

New Yorkers line up for free at-home COVID-19 test kits ahead of Christmas at a pop-up location on the Lower East Side, Dec. 23, 2021

As it stands, commercial insurers have to either reimburse members for the cost of at-home tests — up to $12 for each individual test — or allow members to use their prescription benefits to pick up tests at an in-network pharmacy, the way they would with any other covered medication.

The latter choice is much easier than paying upfront and seeking reimbursement after the fact, so check your insurance company website or call to see if that’s an option.

Walgreens and CVS both have online portals where customers can enter their insurance information and request free tests to pick up at the store. CVS will even ship them to your house. Or you can simply visit the pharmacy in person. Walgreens says it will submit a claim to a patient’s insurer on their behalf.

Initially, this policy only covered commercial insurers, but it has since been extended to Medicare Part B. Some Medicare Advantage plans also cover the full cost of at-home tests, as does New York state’s Medicaid program.

Without insurance?

New York City also gives out free home tests, for those who are uninsured or don’t want to deal with the hassle of trying to get tests covered by insurance.

The city has distributed some 60 million free test kits so far. They can be picked up at libraries and NYC Health + Hospitals sites throughout the five boroughs. If you’re not sure where to find them, the city has a full list of locations online — along with city-run sites for in-person COVID-19 tests. Public COVID-19 testing sites are still reliably free for patients — unlike some private providers.

Adam Shrier, a spokesperson for the NYC Test & Treat Corps, said New York City “will pursue federal reimbursement” for the home test kits it’s distributing, but he would not say how much the city is spending.

Mayor Eric Adams also recently announced the city is partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to distribute more than 10,000 test kits to people who are blind or have low vision. The kits have easier-to-use components and make it possible to get results read out by a smartphone.

In a statement about the initiative, Adams emphasized the importance of maintaining access to no-cost tests. “Every New Yorker deserves to have access to free testing to ensure that they and their loved ones are protected against COVID-19,” he said.