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What you need to know about COVID-19 testing options

  • Test sensitivity

    Sensitivity of COVID-19 testing depends on factors like how well the test was performed, including collection of the sample and testing of that sample, according to ARUP Laboratories. False positives are unlikely with both antigen- and antibody-type tests, but a false negative can occur if the sample isn’t treated correctly. Taking the nasal swab can be particularly challenging, but the tests still identify if any amount of a particular substance is present in the sample.

  • Test specificity

    Because of the unique nature of the materials identified by a COVID-19 test, a positive result is very trustworthy, according to ARUP. There aren’t a lot of other things that could be mistaken for COVID-19, and the tests are measuring direct viral material or antibodies for a specific virus. The symptoms may seem like those of other conditions—ranging from “regular” flu or a cold to chronic fatigue syndrome—but viral material doesn’t lie.

  • Molecular COVID-19 test

    In a molecular COVID-19 test, a sample obtained from a throat swab undergoes gene-based testing. Scientists combine the sample with a material designed to bond with the genetic material of the virus, so they can then measure the overall amount of the material that has been bonded in this way. Think about walking through a crowd and placing a large yellow hat on everyone who’s a certain height—it’s very easy to see everyone you’ve selected this way.

  • What the 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.

  • CDC diagnostic panel

    The CDC diagnostic panel is a one-stop shop in a box, giving testers everything they need to process patient samples. This test went through FDA certification along with all the other kinds of COVID-19 tests, and the CDC has developed a second kit that will test for two kinds of flu along with COVID-19.

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  • Quest Diagnostics

    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.

  • Thermo Fisher Scientific

    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.

  • Avellino Labs

    Avellino Labs turned their existing genetic testing infrastructure into a fast-tracked testing protocol for COVID-19. Samples are sent to their United States laboratory for testing, which the company says is done in one or two days.

  • At-home tests

    GoodRx lists a handful of companies that make at-home COVID-19 tests. Even the best tests are effective because of the skilled way they’re administered, and home users who aren’t trained in health care are not likely to get these optimal results. An at-home test should be considered a backup option, or for patients who are at very high risk even at a drive-through testing site.

  • Interpreting molecular test results

    Clinicians combine knowledge of an individual patient’s case—with information like potential exposure, any symptoms they’ve experienced, and their level of risk—with the scientific outcome of the molecular test, according to the British Medical Journal. That means the interpretation can be slightly different for someone who, say, still works full-time at a grocery store, as opposed to someone who has sheltered in place and stayed home.

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