BILLINGS — Starting Saturday, private insurance companies will be required to reimburse policyholders up to eight at-home COVID-19 tests per month, but that doesn't mean the tests are easy to track down in Billings, with many pharmacies sold out.
“What I’ve come to find out in my experience with this is they are hard to find," said Blair Chambers, a Billings resident who has been looking for a test for weeks.
Chambers said he retired about a year ago from his former job as a car salesman because of COVID-19. Chambers and his wife are immunocompromised and live with their eight-year-old grandson. Chambers said his major focus now is to get tests for his family to have the piece of mind that they are not spreading the virus around.
“By the time I get the information and try to get them, they’re already gone. I think it’s going to be luck of the draw if you can get them. I think if they could just mail them out, then we could be ahead of the game, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen," Chambers said.
Chambers said he has tried to pick up tests at a free handout from RiverStone Health, but within 20 minutes, they were gone.
In Billings, tests are sold out at the CVS Pharmacy stores on Central Avenue and on Grand Avenue and 13th Street West. But some Walgreens stores in Billings still had tests on the shelves Saturday afternoon.
At locally-owned pharmacy, Pharm 406, demand has been similarly high for the at-home tests, said owner and pharmacist Kyle Austin.
"It's been pretty hectic. Nonstop patients coming in. Nonstop calls, 'Do you have those OTC take home COVID tests?' And the answer right now is no," Austin said.
Austin said the tests likely won't be stocked on local pharmacy shelves until March, when manufacturers can fill the 500 million-test order that the federal government took out last week.
"A couple suppliers I talked to were mandated by President Biden that they could not release any more OTC kits to the public until the government got their 500 million allocation," Austin said.
The tests from the feds will eventually be made available for free by mail.
In Billings, RiverStone Health will have a limited number of tests to hand out on Tuesday starting at 10 a.m. in the upper parking lot of MetraPark.
Across the state, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced a purchase of 650,000 tests that will be distributed to county health departments to give out for free. Purchased at a cost of $5.5 million, the tests are scheduled to arrive the week of Jan. 24.
If an at-home COVID test says you're positive, it's still a good idea to get a PCR test done at a healthcare provider or pharmacy to be certain. Most of the at-home tests on the shelves are antibody tests, not PCR tests, Austin said.
“If you get a positive on them, you still need to follow up with a PCR test to confirm that you are positive. Make sure you are following the process," Austin said.