Nora Boydstun is diligent about checking expiration dates. So when she received her latest batch of four free at-home Covid tests from the U.S. government in December, she quickly noticed that their packages listed expiration dates in July or August 2022.
Over the summer, the Food and Drug Administration extended the tests' shelf life by six months, but even with that extra time, two of Boydstun's tests were only valid until Jan. 2. That meant she had two days to use them once they arrived. The other two tests expire in a month.
"I honestly thought when we ordered these, we would be getting something current that we could have on hand for a while," said Boydstun, who lives in Douglas County, Colo. She added that she prefers to save her tests for when she has symptoms or a known exposure.
Other people have reported similar issues and confusion after the latest round of tests started shipping on Dec. 19. Some of the newly delivered iHealth tests from Covid.gov expire in the next month or so, according to their extended dates. It's not clear how many such tests were distributed.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the mail-order Covid test program, did not respond to repeated requests for comment and information about the expiration date issues.
Zach Rogers, who lives in Portland, Ore., said he received his free iHealth tests just before Christmas. They’re due to expire on Feb. 14.
"That was a little disappointing, just given that there’s this new Covid variant going around and cases are continuing to go up. I’m worried that I’m not going to have a test that is available, that hasn’t expired yet, in the event that I need it," he said.
To find out when a Covid test really expires — factoring in the extension period — people can look up the manufacturer and test name on the FDA website. From there, they'll find a list of expiration dates sorted by the batch's lot number, which is located on the back of each test box. An expiration date extension means the test maker has provided evidence to the government that the tests give accurate results longer than was known when they were manufactured.
Most iHealth tests with extended shelf lives expire in February at the latest, according to the FDA’s updated list. The latest extended dates for Abbott's BinaxNOW tests are in April.
The USPS site for ordering free tests includes a notice telling people to check the extended expiration dates and directing them to the FDA site. The FDA said it has asked manufacturers to start printing the expiration date web address on test boxes going forward.
"This is currently occurring for new shipments from some manufacturers and others are in the process," an FDA spokesperson said.
Rogers said he wasn't aware of the extensions when his tests arrived, so he at first thought they weren't viable.
"I feel like I'm a relatively informed person. I keep up with the news and I pay a lot of attention to the pandemic and health issues in my community. And this was something that definitely flew under my radar," he said.
Rogers and Boydstun each said they worry that others who experience the same confusion they did might throw away tests before they’ve actually expired, or accidentally use tests past their new expiration dates.
"Some people will get this in the mail, assuming it’s new, assuming it’s current, use it and rely on it," Boydstun said.
If a test is indeed expired, the general recommendation is to throw it away, said Dr. Susan Butler-Wu, an associate professor of clinical pathology at the University of Southern California.
The FDA, too, said Covid tests may degrade over time, so expired kits could give inaccurate or invalid results. The agency added that it would consider further extending expiration dates if manufacturers present new data showing that their tests are still viable.
For people who opt to take chances on expired tests, Butler-Wu suggested making sure the pink control line at the top is clearly visible.
"If there's any funky business with that control, that is not a valid test result and you cannot use that," she said.
People with Covid symptoms shouldn't trust a negative result from an expired test, she added: "If you're sitting there and you have lost your sense of taste or smell, and that test is telling you it's negative and it was expired, do I believe it? No."