Since the beginning of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, there has been a lot of buzz about testing. Like the virus itself, what we know about effective testing continues to evolve along with the pandemic. Different tests are now available at various places, from your local healthcare provider’s office to retail pharmacies.
So how do you know where to go and what test to have? We answer these and other common questions about testing for COVID-19.
What types of COVID-19 tests are available?
There are three types of COVID-19 tests. The first is a diagnostic viral test that tells you if you currently have an infection. Called the PCR test for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), this test is used for people who already have COVID-19 symptoms or who think they may have been exposed to the virus, says Melissa B. Miller, PhD, director of the clinical microbiology and molecular microbiology labs at UNC Medical Center.
Similar to a flu test, a sample is taken from your nose or throat with a long cotton swab. It won’t hurt, but it might be uncomfortable. The swab is then sent to a lab for testing. The lab analyzes the sample with technology that can detect the virus if you are actively infected.
The time it takes to get results varies from hours to even a week or longer, depending on where you live and local capacity. Your testing center or doctor’s office usually will contact you with results and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on your result, and can give you a note for school or work. If you test positive, you’ll be expected to take precautions, such as separating yourself from other people (even within your household, if possible), staying home except to get medical care and wearing a mask over your nose and mouth if you must be around other people or pets.
The second type of test is also diagnostic; the antigen test, like the PCR test, indicates whether you currently have a COVID-19 infection. Approved in the spring by the Food and Drug Administration, the antigen test uses technology similar to that used for the rapid strep test. Using samples from a nasal swab, the test can quickly detect proteins associated with the virus, Dr. Miller says. While test results are available almost immediately, it is not as accurate as the PCR test.
The third type of test is called an antibody test. This test determines whether you have developed antibodies from a COVID-19 infection. An antibody test is done using a blood sample obtained by a finger prick or blood draw.
This test is not looking for the virus, but instead is trying to determine whether your immune system has responded to an infection caused by the virus. In other words, it is looking for the antibodies that fought the virus. That could indicate you had COVID-19 in the past.
It is not yet known whether the antibodies will protect you from a second infection. However, if antibodies are detected, you may be eligible to donate blood plasma that could be provided to a very sick patient as an experimental convalescent plasma treatment.
Antibody testing is usually done after a full recovery from COVID-19. Eligibility may vary, depending on the availability of tests. Talk to your doctor if you are interested in antibody testing.
Where should you go to be tested for COVID-19?
If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or you have come into close contact with someone who tested positive for or has symptoms of COVID-19, call your doctor. Your doctor can guide you on where you should go to be tested, says UNC Health Alliance nurse Beth Caviness, RN, BSN.
Some areas have drop-in testing centers where you can walk up without an appointment or referral from your doctor. This includes local retail pharmacy chains. Others may require a doctor’s order or an appointment with a testing facility. Contact your local testing center to get a sense of what to expect.
The advantage to having your testing done at a healthcare facility like UNC Health is the follow-up care you receive after your test, Caviness says.
“If you get a positive test, we continue to call and check on you over the next seven to 10 days,” says UNC Health Alliance nurse Jennifer Balchunas, LPN. “And if you need it, we can help you get a virtual appointment with a healthcare provider. You can go anywhere to get a swab, but our patients also get an outreach call from either a centralized team of nurses or, coming soon, directly from their primary care office.”
When should you get a COVID-19 diagnostic test?
In addition to being tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or come into close contact with someone who has tested positive, you will need to be tested before a planned medical procedure or surgery. Knowing whether a patient has a current COVID-19 infection helps healthcare providers plan accordingly to reduce the spread of the virus to other patients and hospital staff.
Keep in mind, just because you have symptoms does not mean you need a COVID-19 test. If you have mild symptoms and can self-isolate at home, you may not need a test—especially if there is a testing supply shortage in your area. However, tests can be helpful so you can take precautions to avoid passing the virus to others. Ask your healthcare provider what he or she recommends.
If you are concerned that you may have symptoms of COVID-19, talk to your doctor or visit the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page.