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 now widely available. We also have a better understanding of which tests are best used in which scenarios, and how to interpret test results.
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 a priority for testing, but with a steady, adequate supply of tests, we can test at-risk people, as well. This is a key part of any plan to safely 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 DNA-based 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.
Deciding where to get tested depends on a number of factors. 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 test 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, a research associate at Stacker, helped compile this list.
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What a molecular test feels like
If you’ve ever had an oral swab test for something like HIV or the flu, the COVID-19 swab is not so different. The Mayo Clinic advises that the best site for collection is either far up your nose or in the very back of your throat, which can be pretty uncomfortable, but for people whose health prevents collection from those places, a sample can come from inside your mouth. The goal is to find a place where the virus is most likely to congregate to achieve the best accuracy.
The conveniend of drive-through testing
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.
The importance of testing
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. 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 you have been in any kind of large crowd, you should get tested, according to Healthline. Don’t get tested immediately, though: the virus will likely take five to seven days to proliferate in your body to the point that it becomes detectable. If you get tested right after a potential exposure, you may receive a “false negative,” meaning that your result is negative even though the virus is, in fact, present. Public health experts recommend quarantining for a week, then getting a test, so that your result is more reliable.
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.
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 to prepare for getting tested
The Mayo Clinic advises that if you do have COVID-19 symptoms, you should 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.
The prevalence of of Quest Diagnostics tests
Quest Diagnostics is a household name across many kinds of medical testing, and they say they were responsible for up to 50% of COVID-19 tests in use during the worst part of the first wave of U.S. cases. Their robust existing infrastructure of testing sites and protocols may have given them an edge in processing a lot of tests in a timely fashion.
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.
Thermo Fisher Scientific's multiplex testing
Thermo Fisher Scientific’s multiplex testing kit gives testers all the materials that they need to conduct up to 1,000 tests per kit. Those numbers are only suggested for testers who are using the right kinds of swabs and performing the tests in a certain way, so Thermo Fisher recommends adhering to this protocol in order to maximize output.