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'Why Do Some COVID-19 Tests Take So Long?'

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By Elizabeth Hanes, BSN, RNAugust 07, 2020

When you think you might have contracted COVID-19, timing truly is everything. You want to get tested – and get results – right away. Those test results provide answer to important questions, like should I seek medical care, do I need to quarantine myself, and can I go back to work?

So why is it taking more than three weeks for some people to get their COVID-19 test results back? The answer depends on type of testing performed, the test volume the lab is dealing with and whether or not your test is a “diagnostic” or “screening” type.

COVID-19 rapid result testing can give you an answer in an hour – but that’s if the testing location has enough people to read the tests while you wait. If you’re at a location or clinic where hundreds of people are lined up for rapid result testing, then the wait itself may take longer than an hour, not to mention how long it might take the technician to get to your particular test.

The “regular” COVID-19 test that most people receive gets sent to a laboratory for analysis. Because of the uptick in testing in many regions, the labs that analyze these swabs have developed a backlog of tests. They work through these tests in the order they receive them, so if the lab has thousands of tests ahead of yours, well, your wait for results might take weeks.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, then your nasal swab is considered a “diagnostic” test that should get processed quicker. Screening tests performed on people without symptoms likely go to the end of the line and could take weeks to get processed.

So, how long might you wait for your COVID-19 test results?

In states with a lot of COVID-19 cases, like Arizona, some people say they’ve waited nearly four weeks for results. In areas with fewer cases and a lower test volume, you should receive the results of a regular test within five to seven days, and the results from a rapid test within the hour. But check with the testing site or lab to find out their current timeline for providing results.

While you’re waiting, what should you do? Can you go back to work?

If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, you should act like you’re infected and quarantine yourself while you wait for the test results to say for sure.

If you don’t have symptoms and got a test for screening purposes, then you do not need to quarantine. Follow the current guidelines to always wear a mask in public, wash your hands frequently, and stay at least six feet away from other people when you’re out and about.

It’s a great idea for everyone to get tested for COVID-19 because it provides valuable data for researchers. But be prepared to wait for results. And if you’re sick, stay away from other people while you wait.

 

 

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