Long lines at COVID-19 testing locations in New York and elsewhere recently illustrated two smart moves Minnesota made early in the pandemic: setting up no-cost "community testing sites" and launching a program that delivers free tests to homes.

There are now 24 community testing sites statewide. The high-population metro is home to a cluster of them, but the program spans the state with locations including Crookston, Duluth, Moorhead, Marshall, Hutchinson, Albert Lea and Winona.

Walk-ins are welcome, though appointments can be made. No proof of insurance is needed. Thirteen locations offer rapid COVID tests, with results potentially available in 20 minutes. Results from the standard test can be available in 24-48 hours.

The omicron variant's shockingly swift spread in the United States requires extra vigilance. With the holidays looming, testing before you go and gather, whether you have symptoms or not, is the responsible thing to do. Along with vaccination, masking and avoiding high-risk settings for COVID transmission, testing will help protect you and everyone around you.

Minnesota's abundant testing options means there's little excuse for not taking this sensible step, though note these sites' limited holiday hours later this week. For those who can't or don't want to travel to a location, the state's at-home test delivery is another convenient option, though it requires more forethought since it is sent to your home and the sample is shipped back to the lab for analysis.

Many clinics and drug store chains continue to offer on-site COVID testing. Another alternative: rapid, at-home tests available over-the-counter. Brand names include BinaxNOW, QuickVue, iHealth, and FlowFlex. These are easy to use and deliver results in around 15 minutes.

While considered less sensitive than the molecular tests processed by a laboratory, a recent report on reliability concluded that these at-home tests play an important role in "controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and reducing the burden on molecular diagnostic laboratories."

A drawback to these do-it-yourself tests is cost. They typically come in packages of two and cost $20-$25 at drugstores. A tip to reduce sticker shock: the Internal Revenue Service has declared that at-home COVID tests are a medical expense that can be paid for (or reimbursed) with health savings accounts (HSAs) or health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs). In 2022, health insurers may be required to reimburse these costs as one of President Joe Biden's COVID initiatives takes effect.

No matter what type of test you get, the results are useful only if the information prompts action. If the result is positive, stay home to avoid infecting others. Crowded indoor conditions are ideal for COVID's spread. Don't let this virus hitch a ride.

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) testing experts cautioned this week that even a negative test isn't license to fling caution aside. Among the caveats: timing is tricky.

Even if you get negative result a few days before a Christmas or New Year's get-together, you could still get infected in the interim. "Laying low" — essentially, staying home as much as possible and taking other precautions — before seeing family and friends remains critical.

Testing negative also isn't a free pass when COVID symptoms are present. You could still have undetected COVID and should follow up with another test or see a health care provider if symptoms persist. Flu and other pathogens continue to circulate, and it's important not to transmit these as well.

Nor is testing a substitute for vaccination and booster shots.

This far into the pandemic, there are calls to "learn to live" with the virus. The reality: We already are. Testing, vaccination, masking and staying home when sick are how we carefully live with the COVID virus to protect ourselves and our communities.