With new websites to order at-home COVID-19 tests and shifting guidance on what to do if you test positive, we’ve compiled a guide of what you need to know about coronavirus testing.
How do you get a test?
The Biden administration launched its website last week for Americans to request four free at-home COVID-19 tests per household.
Washington state also launched its own website for residents to order additional free, rapid coronavirus tests. However, less than a day after the Washington state Department of Health launched the site, the state’s inventory of tests ran out.
The department advised residents to keep an eye on its social media channels and sayyescovidhometest.org to find out when more tests are available. Officials offered no estimated date for a new batch of tests, blaming “national supply chain demands.”
What types of tests are available and how do they differ?
A PCR test requires a sample collected by inserting a swab into a person’s nostril. Some lab tests allow for patients to spit into a tube to get a saliva sample instead. PCR tests are often referred to as the gold standard for COVID testing.
Types of at-home tests:
At-home nasal swab and saliva PCR tests are both similar to those administered at health care provider’s offices, but you collect the nasal swab or saliva sample yourself and mail it to a lab to be analyzed.
Since these tests are PCR tests performed in a lab, results have a higher accuracy than at-home antigen tests.
Rapid at-home antigen tests are the tests you’ll receive after ordering from the federal and state websites. These tests are faster and less expensive than PCR tests, but there is an increased chance of false-negative results.
When should I use my tests?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you take an at-home test if you have COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed or potentially exposed to an individual with the virus.
Even if you don’t have symptoms and have not been exposed to an individual with COVID-19, using a self-test before gathering with others can help understand the risk of spreading the coronavirus. This is especially important before gathering with unvaccinated children, older individuals, those who are immunocompromised or individuals at risk of severe disease, the CDC said.
A positive test result indicates that you likely have a current infection.
A negative test result shows that you may not be infected and may be at low risk of spreading disease to others, though it does not rule out an infection.
Why a negative coronavirus test doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not infected
- Early in an infection, the virus may not have reproduced enough to be detectable.
- Each test captures just one moment in time. You could walk out of a testing center and immediately contract the virus. The test you just took is not going to reflect your new infection.
What COVID-19 tests are effective at detecting omicron?
Molecular tests processed in a lab are still the best tests available for detecting a COVID-19 infection, according to UW Medicine laboratory medicine expert Dr. Geoffrey Baird. But both rapid tests and molecular/PCR tests can detect omicron, Baird said.
“Rapid testing is a great approach if you’re symptomatic. The data on how those work are within 90% of the sensitivity of PCR testing if you’re symptomatic,” Baird says.
However, if you don’t have symptoms, rapid tests are not as effective at detecting an infection and could give you a false negative, Baird said.
Baird advises you schedule a PCR test five days after exposure, if possible, if you have been exposed or potentially exposed to coronavirus. If you’re already symptomatic though, then it’s OK to use a rapid antigen test if you have one, he said.
How to find the right test for new U.S. travel rules
The United States now requires all inbound international travelers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within a day of their flight to enter the country. The requirement is mandatory for anyone at least 2 years old, including American citizens and legal residents, regardless of vaccination status.
Per CDC requirements, travelers must get a rapid antigen test or nucleic acid amplification test, which includes PCR tests.
As you plan your international trip, consider how coronavirus testing will fit into your itinerary. Depending on where you’re visiting, it may be very easy to find one.
Travelers can also skip in-person testing by bringing an at-home test on their trip. But not all at-home tests are accepted for travel into the U.S. Self-tests must be approved by the CDC and be taken over a video call with real-time supervision from a telehealth service.
What to do if you test positive
If you took a rapid test, you don’t necessarily need a PCR test to confirm the diagnosis, according to Dr. Susan Bleasdale, an infectious disease physician at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. A PCR test isn’t necessary if you have symptoms. If you don’t have symptoms, or a known exposure, consider a follow-up PCR if there is concern about a false positive, she said. “Right now, with the significant increase in cases, we’re not seeing very many false positives,” she added.
You should also tell people you were around recently. Notify anyone you saw the two days prior to when either you developed symptoms or tested positive, and tell anyone you were around when you had symptoms.
According to the most recent guidance from the CDC, experts advise isolating yourself from others for at least five days. Wear a well-fitting mask when you need to be around others; stay in your own room and use a separate bathroom if available.
If at the five-day mark, you are fever-free for 24 hours without any medication and other symptoms have improved, you can end isolation but should still wear the mask. The CDC notes that loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months and doesn’t need to delay leaving isolation.
Avoid people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for at least 10 days. Do not go places where you are unable to mask, such as restaurants. Avoid travel for the full 10 days.