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Supported by:
Brown School of Public Health   The Rockefeller Foundation

understanding
coronavirus tests

What types of COVID-19 tests are available?
There are currently two types of tests that are used to diagnose if you have the coronavirus:

Molecular Tests, also known as PCR tests, are very common. These tests are very sensitive and can detect small amounts of genetic material from the virus. They are currently the most accurate tests available and are primarily used to diagnose if someone who has symptoms is infected with COVID-19. As capacity allows, molecular tests are also used to screentest asymptomatic people, for example if someone is a known contact of an individual who tested positive, or if a routine screening effort is using molecular testing, such as colleges who test students and staff weekly.

Antigen Tests, also known as Rapid Diagnostic Tests, are becoming more common this fall and winter and will enable increased testing. These tests work by detecting a so-called ‘antigen’, which is a protein that sits on the surface of the virus. They are faster and cheaper than molecular tests, but so far less accurate. They will increasingly be used to test large groups of healthy people to find those who may be positive for COVID-19 but asymptomatic. If you get a positive result from an antigen test, contact your doctor to find out if you should confirm the result with a PCR test.

Additional technologies to test for the virus, such as next genome sequencing, will likely be available this winter.

What are antibody tests?
Because they sound so similar, antibody tests are often confused with antigen tests, even though they are fundamentally different. Antigen and molecular tests tell you if you currently have an infection. Antibody tests, on the other hand, tell you if you have been infected with coronavirus in the past. For an antibody test, your blood is drawn to check if it contains antibodies to the virus. It can take 1-3 weeks after an infection for your body to make antibodies.

Antibody tests—also known as serology tests—are only recommended to detect a past infection. They are not very common for individuals yet but may become more available this winter.

Does it matter what type of test I get?
For asymptomatic testing, you can get either a rapid antigen test or a molecular/PCR test based on what is offered in your community. If you do have symptoms or have been in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID, please contact your doctor to arrange getting a PCR test at the right time based on when you were exposed.

Will getting tested hurt?
No. There is one type of test that swabs deep into the back of the nose and causes slight discomfort. It is mostly used in clinics and doctors offices to confirm an infection. Most tests used for asymptomatic testing simply require a cheek or nose swab that takes a few seconds and is pain free. Some new rapid tests are even less invasive and only require spitting a saliva sample into a tube.

Most tests used for asymptomatic testing simply require a cheek or nose swab that takes a few seconds and is pain free.

Will the test cost me money?
Asymptomatic testing provided by local governments and their partners is usually free. Some private clinics and pharmacies charge a fee for asymptomatic testing, so it’s best to inquire ahead of time. Few insurance companies cover asymptomatic testing so, to avoid having to pay out of pocket, make sure you get your tests at a site where the test is free.

Do I need a referral to get tested?
If you have symptoms or are getting tested through your doctor’s office, you may need a referral to ensure that your insurance covers the test. For free testing clinics and testing campaigns in your city or state, or routine testing in your workplace, you do not need a referral.

How long after I take the test will I receive results?
This depends on the type of test you take. Rapid tests produce results in as little as a few minutes to a few hours. PCR tests can take up to a few days to process. If your results are not available immediately, testing staff will provide you with information on how you will receive your results – which may be an email, phone call or online portal. Labs prioritize positive results and will attempt to reach those people as soon as possible, so be sure to answer any unknown phone calls when you are waiting for your results.


Can I go back to work while I wait for my results?
Have you been in close contact with a known case? If the answer is yes, you should quarantine while you wait for your results. If the answer is no, you can go to work or school and continue with regular activities as advised during the pandemic as long as you don’t have symptoms. If you are experiencing even mild symptoms, you should immediately quarantine yourself and contact your healthcare provider. It is crucial that we all continue to practice everyday prevention measures even when we do not feel sick, such as proper handwashing, physical distancing, and mask-wearing, to stop asymptomatic spread.

How reliable are the test results?
It is important not to get distracted by the ongoing discussion about the reliability of tests. All COVID-19 tests are new and not 100% fool proof; errors can occur at various steps in the testing process, which is why you should follow all instructions carefully when getting tested. Overall, however, the FDA-approved tests are doing their job remarkably well and are providing the correct results almost all the time.

Tests are one of several key strategies in this pandemic, such as mask wearing and handwashing — no single one is perfect but taken together, they help us suppress the virus.

Where can I go to get a COVID-19 test?
COVID-19 tests are available at community testing sites, hospitals and health centers, and some stores and pharmacies. Many communities also offer pop-up testing clinics on specific days. Some employers and college campuses have started on-site screening testing for employees and students.

To find out what testing options are available in your area:

  • Call your doctor or primary care office

  • Search the internet using the term “free COVID-19 testing near me”

  • Look for COVID-19 testing information on your state or regional health department’s website. Many states now have online screening forms that can get you pre-approved for testing.

  • Call a local pharmacy or health center and ask for help finding a free testing site

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