When Should You Get Tested for COVID-19?

An expert weighs in
man getting a covid test from a healthcare worker

COVID-19 tests are again gaining focus as the nation experiences the biggest surge so far of the coronavirus pandemic.

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With cases rising rapidly in all corners of the United States, not only are more people being tested but more people are seeking out tests or wondering if they should get tested because of potential exposure.

But just as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, testing efforts have, at times, been hampered by a shortage of materials for testing, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to publish guidance for local and state health departments as to which populations should be tested for coronavirus.

To understand who should get tested for COVID-19 and how long results of your COVID-19 test might take, we checked in with pathologist Brian Rubin, MD, PhD.

Why COVID-19 testing is so important

Effective testing is essential in helping slow the spread of the virus by identifying those who have the virus and enabling treatment or isolation. Testing is also crucial to learn more about how the virus spreads and how prevalent it remains in a given community.

But for those reasons, too, health officials have to be careful that they’re being efficient with their tests. In other words, with ongoing shortages still an issue, the importance of making sure those most in need get tested means not everyone should be getting tested.

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Who should get tested for COVID-19?

As we’ve learned more about how the virus spreads, so, too, has the CDC tweaked its recommendations. Besides testing for people who have symptoms of COVID-19 or upon reference by your healthcare provider or state health department, the CDC now suggests testing for asymptomatic patients who have been exposed to someone with a confirmed case.

According to updated guidance, the CDC says, “Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, this guidance further reinforces the need to test asymptomatic persons, including close contacts of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

If you haven’t been exposed to the virus and don’t show any symptoms of COVID-19, though, Dr. Rubin makes it simple: You don’t need a test. The one exception, he adds, is if you’re due to have a procedure in a hospital or doctor’s office setting and, generally, your healthcare provider will provide you with instructions in that situation.

How soon should you get tested for COVID-19 after exposure?

As with so many other aspects of COVID-19, there’s no direct answer. In many cases, a person with the virus would test positive around three-to-five days after contracting it; the CDC itself says the virus has a median incubation time of four to five days. That’s about the same average amount of time it takes for symptoms to develop, though the CDC notes the incubation period could be anywhere from two to 14 days.

In other words, getting tested the day after a potential exposure means you’ll have a very high chance of a negative test result even if you have been infected.

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As for how long you’d have to wait to actually get tested, it really depends on where you live because wait times vary not just from city-to-city and state-to-state but from system-to-system. In the same city, you could get a wide variety of wait times.

While some people may face little delay, others may encounter hours-long lines or a wait of several weeks for an appointment to receive a test.

How long does it take to get COVID-19 test results?

Again, it depends. According to Dr. Rubin, many patients may be able to get test results within 24 hours. But, depending on where the test is sent, it could take up to two weeks in some cases. It’s one more of those frustrating variables of COVID-19.

“You could get a result within minutes with some tests,” Dr. Rubin says. “But if it has to be sent to an outside laboratory and that lab is backed up, it could take a few weeks.”

That wait could also increase as cases continue to skyrocket and so, too, do tests. More volume means more of a wait.

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