What you need to know about COVID-19 testing options
After a critical shortage during the beginning of the U.S. pandemic, COVID-19 tests are starting to be much more widely available. Stacker used a variety of public health sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, to compile 30 helpful tips on COVID-19 testing, including how the tests work, major test providers, how to interpret your results, and more.
People with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 should continue to be tested as soon as they can, but with a steady, adequate supply of tests, we can finally begin to test at-risk people, as well. This will be a key part of any plan to reopen schools and workplaces, because people must be able to know who’s at risk and keep those students or workers at home in order to protect the group.
A molecular test takes a swab from inside your nose or throat, mixes the sample with certain chemicals, and then tests for the presence of COVID-19 genetic material that’s active in your body. In contrast, an antibody test uses a tiny sample of blood to identify the signs that you’ve already had the virus, which can still be useful for contact-tracing how the disease is spreading. Some politicians have speculated that these antibodies will lead to herd immunity or even ongoing personal immunity, but there isn’t any evidence for either idea yet.
Deciding where to get tested will depend on a lot of factors unique to you. Do you have symptoms? Are you at high risk of catching COVID-19, precluding even a masked visit to a crowded clinic waiting area? Drive-through testing sites or, if nothing else works, at-home tests can help to diagnose even the highest-risk people without exposure to others. Many of the makers of these tests have decades-long track records in genetic and disease testing, and this infrastructure has helped them to ramp up production and the speed of testing.
If you get tested, be prepared for a slightly uncomfortable swab inserted into your nasal cavity, and start thinking about the people you should notify if you do end up testing positive. But having the information is a huge benefit for public health, and it can guide you and your family in your own decision-making going forward.
Editor's note: Betsy Ladyzhets, research associate at Stacker, helped compile this list.
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Why is testing important?
People who have COVID-19 symptoms have a clear reason to be tested as soon as possible, but even many healthy people should be tested at least occasionally, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. One reason for this is to catch asymptomatic people who can change behaviors if they know they’re positive, while another is to ensure the ongoing safety of people who work with the public, even if they’re exercising caution. Regular, widespread testing also helps health officials to better understand the scale of the pandemic.
When you should get tested
If you’ve been exposed to someone you think has COVID-19 or been in any kind of large crowd, you should get tested as soon as you can, according to Healthline. People who’ve had to travel, especially on airplanes and public transit, should continue to get tested regularly as long as they continue to travel. The best thing is still to avoid groups and traveling if at all possible.
How to find a testing site
You can find a testing site near you by searching online at sites like Castlight, and you can also check neighborhood drop-in clinics and urgent care facilities. Exercise caution when deciding on a time and place to be tested, because waiting in a crowd is a bad idea unless there’s no other way to be tested. You can also call ahead to ask what a particular place is doing to ensure the safety of their visitors.
Testing at a hospital
Hospitals are experiencing high volume and staffing shortages because of COVID-19, so a hospital shouldn’t be your first option to get tested. If it’s the best choice for you, call ahead to make sure you’re satisfying any requirements to make an appointment or be screened in advance. You may need a doctor’s referral as well.
Testing at a clinic
Many community clinics and walk-in medical services are offering COVID-19 testing, and your area might have pop-up clinics that only do COVID-19 testing. Be careful about when and where you go because of the potential for long waits in risky indoor groups. Still, clinics may be more accessible and with fewer barriers to get tested.
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Drive-through clinics are opening around the country as a very low-contact option, especially for people who are high-risk. CVS has opened a network of these drive-through test sites. Patients drive up for a swab and are typically notified by phone or text once their results come in.
How to prepare for getting tested
The Mayo Clinic advises that if you do have COVID-19 symptoms, call your doctor ahead of time if you can and talk with them about your symptoms—if not, you can find an online screening tool to review some possible symptoms. Think carefully and retrace your steps in case you can pinpoint where you might have been exposed, because that can determine whether you’re able to be tested at some places. Make sure you have clean protective gear to wear the entire time you’re en route and at the doctor’s office.
How much a test costs
Americans with insurance must have their tests covered after the passage of a relevant law in March. Even without insurance, you can pay out of pocket to be tested at a walk-in clinic or medical office, but you could pay up to or more than $100 for the test itself, let alone the doctor's visit. Call ahead for the entire out-of-pocket cost or look for low-cost or free testing that may be available in your community for people who meet certain qualifications.
How long it takes to get results
Some kinds of medical testing are instant or nearly so, but COVID-19 testing takes anywhere from at least about a day to up to a week or more, according to CNET. Right now, factors like health-worker shortages, distancing protocols, and available number of testing kits means the wait is both hard to predict and potentially very long. Your testing site should be able to give you an idea how long your test results will take.
How tests get approved
The FDA has approved dozens of individual test designs made by many manufacturers. Some of these test for antigens, some for antibodies, and some for secondary markers like inflammation. The FDA has fast-tracked these with Emergency Use Authorization, a policy that predates COVID-19 and covers development of new technology for any similar medical emergency.
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