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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.

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Minnesotans don't toss out their winter parkas and boots when spring finally arrives. Instead, cold weather gear goes into temporary storage, preferably in a location that's easily accessible.

In this state, colder temperatures are never that far away. Coats, hats and mittens can be needed on short notice. Ensuring these are close at hand, and that kids' gear still fits, is essential with autumn's arrival. We may not need these items right now, but preparation is critical for when the thermometer drops.

The same principle applies to COVID-19. While Minnesota hospitalizations dropped sharply after rising in July and are at low levels for the year, the pandemic has repeatedly made clear that this can change rapidly. National statistics underscore this. Weekly hospitalizations rose 16% for the period ending Aug. 26, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even with vaccines and treatment available, readiness remains vital as this virus continues to circulate. While you may not need at-home COVID tests at this moment, it's important to have them on hand for the months ahead. Fortunately, free tests are available to Minnesotans, with the no-cost test program "running through at least January," according a Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson.

The tests can be ordered online at sayyescovidhometest.org. Those who don't have access to a computer or need other assistance can call the Minnesota Department of Health COVID hotline at 1-833-431-2053.

Households can order four tests each month, again while supplies last. Delivery is quick (an editorial writer got hers in two days) and convenient — right to your home address.

By now, most people are familiar with rapid at-home COVID tests, which also remain available at drugstores, retailers such as Target and on Amazon. Brand names include BinaxNow, iHealth, QuickVue and Flowflex.

They work similarly, filled with testing solution that's then squeezed out onto a test strip. No prescription is needed. Results are also generally available in around 10-15 minutes. There's no need to send out samples to a lab.

Prices currently range from around $8 for one Flowflex test to $16 for a BinaxNow kit containing two tests. It's easy to see that the free testing program is a good deal, particularly for those on fixed or limited incomes.

The nation may have moved off war footing against COVID with the end of the public health emergency declared last spring. But that shouldn't equate to letting our guard down against the virus.

Individuals continue to have an important role to play in limiting its spread and harm. That means staying current on vaccination. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized an updated COVID booster, with availability expected in the "near future." The CDC still needs to greenlight this but is expected to do so swiftly. More information on booster eligibility is at tinyurl.com/FDABoosterGuidance.

Having test kits at home and using them strategically remains an important part of preventing COVID's spread. If you're feeling ill, testing before a gathering, for example, and staying home if it's positive will help keep loved ones healthy. Knowing you have COVID is also important so you can get Paxlovid, an effective treatment, as soon as possible.

Minnesotans may still have unused COVID tests on hand that were acquired months ago. It's important to know that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has extended the shelf-life of at-home tests made by two well-known brands — iHealth and BinaxNow to 15 months and 22 months, respectively.

If you have these tests and want to see if they're still good, consumers can check lot numbers for iHealth and BinaxNow tests online. This information is available for iHealth at tinyurl.com/iHealthCheck. For BinaxNow, go to tinyurl.com/BinaxNOWCheck. Some other brands have had shelf life extensions, too. Information about them is available from the FDA at tinyurl.com/COVIDTestCheck.

Minnesotans may be enjoying sunshine and comfortable temperatures right now. But they also understand how important it is to get ready for winter. It's prudent to take the same precautions with COVID, with the free tests an easy step to protect family and friends.