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When Should I Get Tested for COVID-19?

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By Elizabeth Hanes, BSN, RNJune 29, 2020

When we first started hearing about COVID-19 in the U.S., the symptoms of the virus – and thus, the criteria for testing – seemed pretty straightforward: If you have a fever and a cough, get tested (if your doctor has access to a test). But as doctors and researchers learned more about the virus (and more people were tested and diagnosed), it became clear that the symptoms were not so straightforward– and sometimes not present at all. So, now that there’s a laundry list of “maybe” symptoms, how do you know when to get tested?

First off, if you have the hallmark signs and symptoms of infection from the coronavirus – fever and coughing – you definitely should get tested. Don’t try to self-diagnose. If you’ve got a fever and other symptoms, call your healthcare provider and let them take it from there. In fact, if you’re feeling unwell at all for more than a few days, give your healthcare provider a call. Better to get a diagnosis than to suffer.

And even asymptomatic people may want or need to get tested. For instance, if you believe you’ve been exposed to the virus, you should check your local guidelines regarding testing and contact tracing. Or, if you work in a high-risk environment like a hospital or a prison you might qualify for testing even without symptoms.

It may not be that simple to obtain a test, though.

Each state (and sometimes county or municipality) sets its own standards for who can obtain a COVID-19 test. This situation partly stems from the early shortage of tests, which required authorities to prioritize who could and could not receive testing. In some places, these shortages have eased, but that doesn’t mean everybody now can go out and get tested.

California, for example, classifies people into three “tiers” for testing purposes and leaves the ultimate decision about who to test up to each “Local Health Officer.”

Florida guidelines state that doctors and county health department officials will determine, on a person-by-person basis, who can get tested for COVID-19.

In all states, people with symptoms of the coronavirus receive priority for testing. If you’re symptomatic, call your primary care provider for instructions on how and where to get tested.

If you’re not symptomatic, then your local guidelines will determine whether or not you can get tested. To find out if you’re eligible for a test, look on your state’s website.

COVID-19 tests can be either molecular (detect the virus’ own genetic material) or antigen (detects proteins on the surface of the virus) based. Antigen tests provide rapid results but slightly less accurate; molecular tests require hours or days to return results but detect a higher percentage of active infections than antigen tests do.  If tests are widely available in your area and the speed of the results matters to you, then I’d recommend you choose a location based on the type of testing they offer.

 

 

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