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COVID-19 Testing: Your Questions Answered

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Dr. Steven Woloshin
Dr. Steven Woloshin, co-director, Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute

Communities across the U.S. continue to reopen, and more people may find themselves in need of COVID-19 testing. Right now, there are two types of tests: viral and antibody. Viral tests are diagnostic and check for an active infection. Antibody tests tell you if you had a past infection. 

Diagnostic tests play an important role in helping to control and gauge the spread of infection as well as protect vulnerable populations, Dr. Steven Woloshin, co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute and a general internist told Drugwatch in an email. 

We spoke with medical experts to get the answers to common questions about COVID-19 diagnostic testing. Read on to learn what to expect when you go for a test and steps you can take to keep yourself and others safe.

Should I Get Tested?

Not everyone should be tested for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Given testing backlogs leading to long turnaround times, I’d think about why [people] want to be tested,” Woloshin said. “I’d look at credible websites [such as] CDC or local health authorities, or the UK NHS site — which is very good — to help decide about testing priorities.”

The CDC’s latest testing guidelines identify groups of people for whom testing is appropriate. These include:

  • People with COVID-19 symptoms
  • People without symptoms who have been in close contact for at least 15 minutes with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 
  • People who are in a high transmission zone and attended a gathering of more than 10 people without social distancing or wearing a mask (as recommended by healthcare provider or public health official)
  • Any situation as recommended by a healthcare provider or public health official

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC recommends you contact your doctor first if you want to get tested. For testing locations and information, check the CDC’s directory of state health departments or the National Association of County and City Health Officials’ site for local health departments

How Much Does It Cost?

Many community sites and select pharmacies across the country — including Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid and Walmart — offer free testing. You can find a list of community-based testing sites by visiting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

According to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, health plans are supposed to cover testing if it’s “medically appropriate.” Consumers should check with their insurance company before using a test not provided at one of the HHS free test locations. 

For example, private insurance may not cover FDA-authorized at-home testing kits such as Pixel by LabCorp, Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit and the Rutgers Clinical Genomics Laboratory test sold by Vault Health. 

These tests may cost as much as $150.

What to Expect During and After Testing

If you go to a testing site, plan for long lines and wait times. Most testing sites use a nasal swab to collect samples. 

During a nasal swab, health care providers will insert a 6-inch-long Q-tip into the nose and rotate it to gather testing material from both nostrils. The process takes about 15 seconds per nostril. During a saliva collection, a person spits into a container. 

If you use a home collection kit, you will collect the sample yourself and send it to the lab. 

It can take days for you to find out if you have the virus. Make sure you take precautions to protect yourself and others by self-quarantining, social distancing, wearing a face covering and washing your hands while you wait for test results. 

What Happens If I’m Positive?

If your test result is positive, most likely you currently have an active COVID-19 infection. You need to self-quarantine and follow CDC guidelines if you are sick

You should also notify people who have been in close contact with you from two days before you started feeling sick. 

What Happens If I’m Negative?

If your test is negative, you most likely don’t have an active infection. If you have symptoms, it’s possible the sample was collected too early or it’s a false negative.

Determining the accuracy of COVID-19 tests has been difficult, and no test is 100 percent accurate. 

Woloshin and colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Yale University recently published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at the accuracy of current testing. 

Authors concluded that a negative test result in a person with typical symptoms and known exposure is most likely a false negative. This is especially true if the person is in a COVID-19 hotspot, said Woloshin. 

He recommends checking the Harvard Global Health Institute site to see if you are in a hotspot. People should still take precautions such as social distancing, wearing face coverings and self-quarantining even if the test comes back negative.

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Michelle Llamas, Senior Content Writer
Written By Michelle Llamas Senior Writer

Michelle Llamas has been writing articles and producing podcasts about drugs, medical devices and the FDA for nearly a decade. She focuses on various medical conditions, health policy, COVID-19, LGBTQ health, mental health and women’s health issues. Michelle collaborates with experts, including board-certified doctors, patients and advocates, to provide trusted health information to the public. Some of her qualifications include:

  • Member of American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and former Engage Committee and Membership Committee member
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Health Literacy certificates
  • Original works published or cited in The Lancet, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and the Journal for Palliative Medicine
Edited By
Emily Miller
Emily Miller Managing Editor

19 Cited Research Articles

Drugwatch.com writers follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, court records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and interviews with qualified experts. Review our editorial policy to learn more about our process for producing accurate, current and balanced content.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020 July 23). Test for Current Infection. Retrieved form https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/testing/diagnostic-testing.html
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020 June 13). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/s0613-covid19-testing-recommendations.html
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, July 17). Overview of Testing for SARS-CoV-2. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/testing-overview.html
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  7. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Guidance on Interpreting COVID-19 Test Results. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Testing-Guidance.pdf
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  10. LabCorp. (n.d.). Pixel by LabCorp. Retrieved from https://www.pixel.labcorp.com/at-home-test-kits/covid-19-test#additional-information
  11. National Association of County and City Health Officials. (n.d.). Directory of Local Health Departments. Retrieved from https://www.naccho.org/membership/lhd-directory
  12. Penn Medicine. (n.d.). Additional COVID-19 Questions. Retrieved from https://www.pennmedicine.org/coronavirus/frequently-asked-questions-about-covid-19/additional-covid-questions#tab-1e
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Testing. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/coronavirus/community-based-testing-sites/index.html
  14. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020, April 21). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First Test for Patient At-Home Sample Collection. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-first-test-patient-home-sample-collection
  15. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020, May 16). Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-first-standalone-home-sample-collection-kit-can-be-used
  16. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020, May 8). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First Diagnostic Test Using At-Home Collection of Saliva Specimens. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-first-diagnostic-test-using-home-collection-saliva
  17. UC Davis Health. (2020, July 24). Retrieved from https://health.ucdavis.edu/coronavirus/coronavirus-testing.html
  18. Vault Health. (n.d.). COVID-19 Test Kit — The First FDA EUA Authorized Saliva Test. Retrieved from https://www.vaulthealth.com/covid
  19. Woloshin, S. et al. (2020, August 6). False Negative Tests for SARS-CoV-2 Infection — Challenges and Implications. Retrieved from https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2015897
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