Updated July 24, 2020, with additional information about cost.
- Viral COVID-19 tests check for current infection. Antibody COVID-19 tests check whether a person was infected in the past.
- People who may have been exposed to the coronavirus or have active symptoms should be tested.
- Drive-up testing sites are the most prevalent option for viral COVID-19 tests. These usually require a person to swab their own nasal cavity.
- Even if a person tests negative, following coronavirus protocol is important to reduce potential exposure.
Summer weather may have eased Americans’ fears of the coronavirus, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Over the course of the past month, the United States has seen an upward trend in new COVID-19 cases. We do not have a vaccine. For those reasons, it’s likely that many of us may seek out COVID-19 tests in the coming months.
If you are ready for a test, read on to learn the basics of what it entails and what it can tell you.
Viral tests versus antibody tests
There are two types of tests available: viral tests (also called “molecular” or “antigen” tests) and antibody tests (also called “serological” tests).
Viral tests tell you if you are currently infected with the virus. A positive result means the virus is in your body. Molecular tests look for COVID-19 genetic material; antigen tests look for proteins present on the surface of the virus.
These tests cannot tell you if you contracted COVID-19 in the past and recovered. They also can produce a false negative if you are tested too soon after exposure to the virus. Don’t assume that a negative result means you can go to a crowded restaurant or a family reunion.
Antibody tests tell you if you were previously infected with the virus. A positive result means COVID-19 antibodies are in your body.
These tests cannot tell you if you are currently infected, because your body may not have COVID-19 antibodies for 1 to 3 weeks after infection. A positive test means that you successfully recovered from COVID-19, but bear in mind that we don’t know for certain whether that protects you from getting it again.
Should you get tested?
If you are having symptoms of COVID-19 or suspect you have been exposed to the virus, you should get tested. However, many testing sites require you to have one of the following for eligibility:
- Be a healthcare worker or first responder
- Have symptoms of the virus
- Have some other eligibility in accordance with state and local recommendations
Check your state’s recommendations. Some states, like Ohio, have opened up testing to whoever wants one.
Children are less likely to contract the virus, and if they do, they’re less likely to become severely ill. Nevertheless, if your child is showing signs of COVID-19, call your child’s doctor. If your doctor approves a test, talk to your child about what to expect. The Mayo Clinic has a great video for children as young as 4 years old to help them understand what will happen during the test.
Where to get COVID-19 tests
At your doctor’s office
You’ll need to make an appointment to get tested by your doctor. If you go to your doctor and they cannot perform a test or you’re diagnosed with a different illness without being given a COVID-19 test, your visit will likely not be covered by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Most antibody tests are done by healthcare providers and are not available through drive-up testing sites. These tests require a blood sample acquired through a finger prick.
At a drive-up testing site
Before going to a testing site, check the requirements for your state. Some require a doctor’s order for testing, even if you are experiencing symptoms. Generally, regardless of state, you will need to fill out a pre-screening ahead of time to ensure you’re eligible. If you qualify, you can make an appointment online.
CVS, Walgreens, RiteAid, Kroger, and other pharmacies are offering drive-up viral testing in most states. If you can’t find testing at one of these retailers, check the Department of Health & Human Services for locations of community-based sites and pharmacies with no-cost testing.
Note that “no-cost” test sites may still charge you your usual co-pay, which should be reimbursed after your insurance covers the test. However, according to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, insurers could refuse to cover COVID-19 tests if they consider them not “medically necessary.” Check your insurer’s COVID-19 policy.
If you do not have insurance, check whether your state has opted to cover tests for the uninsured through Medicaid.
How COVID-19 tests are performed
At a testing site
Some viral tests only require a sample of saliva, but most viral testing sites require you to swab your own nasal cavity.
- You’ll be given a long swab. Gently insert it into your left nostril, pointing the swab towards your left ear.
- After rotating the swab twice, hold the swab in place for 15 seconds.
- Remove and repeat these steps on the right nostril.
- Place the swab in the provided tube for collection.
- You will receive your results either by email or phone in approximately three to five business days.
Using an at-home test
The FDA has authorized certain at-home COVID-19 viral tests. You can collect a sample at home, then send it to a lab. (Scroll down on this page for the list of at-home COVID-19 tests.) Naturally the results of these tests can take longer than others, as they travel through the mail and, after being received by the lab, will take up to five days for processing.
What to do if you test positive
Stay home! Even if you don’t feel unwell, follow the recommendations of the CDC to avoid further spread of the virus. Do not leave your home except to get medical care. Try ScriptDrop delivery if you need prescriptions from your pharmacy.
Keep yourself separated from healthy people and pets in your home. If you have spent time with people outside of your home before testing positive, let them know that they may wish to get tested themselves. Share this guide with them!
If your symptoms are mild, stay in touch with your doctor, stay hydrated, and get plenty of rest. If your symptoms are severe or you are having any of the following symptoms, call 911 or go to a local emergency facility. Call ahead if possible to alert staff that a COVID-19 patient will be arriving.
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent chest pain or pressure
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
What to do if you test negative
A negative result to the viral test means you were probably not infected at the time of the test, but even that isn’t certain. Remember, false negatives can happen if you’re tested early in your infection.
Regardless of your results, continue to follow COVID-19 protocol to protect yourself and others. Don’t be swayed by sunshine or a single statistic: virus statistics are based on data from several weeks ago. As hard as it is to hear, we need to be patient and stay vigilant to keep our communities healthy. Remember, CDC says, “The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.”