Don’t throw away those expired COVID tests yet

Published 9/1/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT, Updated 10/5/2022 10:20 a.m. EDT

In this photo illustration, a Citoswab Coronavirus (COVID-19) Home Test kit

There are times when stocking up makes good sense. And there are times when we need to take stock of what we’ve been hoarding.

That life lesson struck hard nearly two weeks ago when I needed to take a COVID test. As I picked through box after box of tests that I had meticulously assembled, I discovered all had dates past their “use by” time. Some had expired a day or two before, others a few weeks before. Still others had expired in the spring.

I did not even know that there were expiration dates until months after home test kits became available. As I acquired them with the same woman-on-a-mission fierceness with which I had previously found hard-to-come-by goods like paper towels, toilet paper, Lysol and even rubbing alcohol (used to make a homemade version of Lysol), no one said anything about expiration dates.

I have picked up kits for months now, proud to be utilizing the training I’d received as a child of the Cold War era when people talked of stockpiling basics in case of the unthinkable.

While hoarding during a pandemic might provide short-term assurance that one’s own household is prepared, it goes against the notion of a beloved community of people looking out for each other. And on top of that you end up with a lot of now useless stuff — like expired COVID test kits.

While the doctors and the researchers, and for sure the manufacturers and the Food and Drug Administration, know that those expiration dates have meaning, it was not until I spoke to two physicians, one in the city health department, the other at MedStar Medical Group, that anyone clued me in on what’s what.

So let me share what I’ve learned.

First, though the packaging says one thing — I’m looking at a box that says to use it by “2022-07-29″ — this may not mean that you should throw it out. Go to the FDA website and you may find that the agency has extended the life of your kit. My July 29 lot, as it turns out, is good until Jan. 29, 2023, and my Aug. 6 lot is good until Feb. 6, 2023. They have each been given six-month reprieves!

Dr. Moira P. Larsen, who oversees the pathology departments and the laboratories for all nine of the MedStar Medical Group’s acute care facilities in Maryland and Washington, D.C., walked me through this FDA list that I’d never heard of, where you check the brand of test kit that you have, along with the lot number, the original expiration date and the extended date. Beware: Not all brands of test kits have been given extensions.

Larsen explains some of the confusion. “These tests didn’t exist until we had a pandemic,” she noted. When public health officials decided that self-testing was a more efficient way for people to monitor their COVID status than waiting for appointments at clinics and venues like the Baltimore Convention Center — and then waiting a few more days for lab results — manufacturers scrambled to produce the tests.

As the manufacturers submitted their data and were approved, the FDA set an expiration of around four to six months based on the best guesstimates of how long the chemical components would remain stable. The date stamped on the packages meant “this is the last date that you should use the test,” Larsen explained. Over time, as samples of the earlier batches were tested and found to still be good, the FDA began extending their expiration dates.

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The problem is, as Larsen noted, “this may not be widely known.”

Especially for those without connections, so much information has not been easily or widely known throughout the pandemic. Let’s just say that the dissemination of information about when and where to get tested or get a vaccine was not done with justice for all. Early on, friends and I worked hard to try to make testing appointments for people, some of whom we convinced to get tested, then convinced to take a vaccine when we found openings.

We all felt relieved of the guerrilla maneuvering when President Biden announced that the feds would send out free home test kits. But I grew a bit peeved by the long wait. And downright angry when eventually a batch arrived and discovered that the tests had a shelf life of about four weeks. Testing had become urgent to me after I signed up for text alerts for whenever anyone with whom I’d had close contact tested positive. I received a couple of those notices recently.

Dr. Adena Greenbaum, the city’s assistant commissioner overseeing clinical services and HIV/STD prevention, is deeply involved with city efforts to control the pandemic through, among other measures, widely distributing home test kits. In addition to initiatives for people in at-risk situations, such as the homeless population, the city makes kits available through branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and about three dozen community-based organizations that distribute them to groups providing outreach services or at block parties or health fairs.

She insists that the community partners know about the expiration dates, but acknowledges that maybe something is getting lost in translation, so that by the time someone gets a kit at a street festival the cautions have been overlooked. Greenbaum said that she’s looking into ways to address the confusion.

Rochelle Walensky, the head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently acknowledged the confusion that the CDC has created since 2019. After years of preparing for worst-case scenarios, she told CDC employees and the press on Aug. 17 that when COVID-19 arrived, “in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations.” An audit that she requested confirmed what many of us could have told her.

“To be frank,” she said, “we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes, from testing to data to communications.” The CDC that she took over when the Bidens succeeded the Trumps had become a politicized hot mess. She has promised a “reset.”

President Biden just announced that the feds would stop sending out its test kits because Congress hasn’t provided funding — a development that could trigger more hoarding. Please resist the urge.

Thankfully, the FDA website offers some guidance as we regular folks try to figure out whether at-home test kits, like foods we purchase at the supermarket, are good for a while after the expiration date or whether we should throw them out.

I have also discovered something else that makes me relieved, but mindful, too: that this pandemic draws a bright line between haves and have-nots. If you have a good health insurance plan, you can walk into a pharmacy and — without spending a dime — pick up several packages of tests every few weeks. I scarfed up the maximum four boxes with two tests each that would have cost me $95.96 without insurance. The 15-month shelf life of that particular batch from Abbott expires in September 2023.

“It is important to use a test that is valid. If it has expired, I’m afraid you just can’t rely on it,” Larsen said

What we can rely upon, however, is our own diligence and self-awareness — not panic hoarding. I now have so much Lysol, hand sanitizer, hand soap, rubbing alcohol, masks and medical gadgets like pulse oximeters that I don’t even know how to use them all.

Instead, hunker down, use common sense, closely read labels and check the FDA’s list of expiration dates, as tedious as that may be. The angst of not having a viable at-home test forced me to this realization. I’ve now stumbled into enlightenment.

E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.