I. Current Guidelines for COVID-19 testing

Overall, as diagnostic testing capacity has increased, the guidelines for who can be tested, and when, have been relaxed. However, there is still some variation on testing availability based on local and state regulations.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers these guidelines for prioritizing who should be tested for the coronavirus:

Highest Priority:

  • Hospitalized patients with symptoms
  • Healthcare facility workers; workers in congregate living settings, and first responders with symptoms
  • Residents in long-term care facilities, or other congregate living settings, including prisons and shelters, with symptoms


  • Persons with symptoms of potential COVID-19 infection
  • Persons without symptoms who are prioritized by health departments or clinicians, for any reason, including but not limited to: public health monitoring, sentinel surveillance, or screening of other asymptomatic individuals according to state and local plans

Individuals who believe they have been exposed to COVID-19, or exhibit symptoms of the disease are still encouraged to contact their individual doctor, or their state or local health department, for guidance on when and how to get tested.

II. COVID-19 symptoms

As more cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed, new symptoms have been discovered. Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) lists the following as symptoms of COVID-19:

Serious symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Loss of speech or movement

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical care immediately. Individuals seeking emergency medical care should contact their doctor or health facility before going in person.

Most common symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Tiredness

Less common symptoms:

  • Sore throat
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Headache
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • Skin rash, or discoloration of fingers or toes

COVID-19 symptoms can appear anywhere between 2-14 days after a person has become infected, although on average, symptoms appear 5-6 days after infection.

In many COVID-19 cases, these symptoms are mild to moderate, and can be treated with over-the-counter medicines and rest. Because of how contagious COVID-19 is, individuals who have the illness or suspect they have the illness are encouraged to self-isolate to avoid further spread of the disease.

Based on the latest information available, it appears that as many as 25 percent of people who are infected are asymptomatic, or show no symptoms, meaning they can unknowingly be spreading the disease by thinking they are not ill.

III. Process for getting tested for COVID-19

Individuals who are seeking testing for COVID-19 should follow the steps outlined below:

Step 1: Follow the CDC’s instructions for self-evaluation for COVID-19 testing.

Step 2: Call your primary care physician, or your state or local health department. Generally speaking, individuals are advised not to go directly to their doctor’s office, healthcare facility, or other testing site without first calling and receiving instructions. This measure is in place to help decrease exposure to COVID-19 for healthcare personnel, and to help individuals observe social distancing requirements.

There are also at-home test kits available, but you still need a doctor’s orders to obtain them. Even if you prefer to do an at-home test, your should still contact your doctor first.

Step 3: Your doctor or the public health worker you speak to will ask you a series of questions to determine whether you should be tested for COVID-19. Based on their assessment, they will either recommend you for testing, and provide further instructions about where to go to get tested, or determine that you don’t need testing, and give you guidance for treating symptoms at home.


How do they collect samples for COVID-19 tests?

Currently, the most common method of specimen collection for COVID-19 testing is a nasopharyngeal swab. A healthcare worker will insert a long, Q-tip-like swab into the nasal passage to collect a sample of fluid from the back of the throat. If you are infected, the sample will contain the virus’s RNA, which will show up when the sample is tested in a lab.

According to healthcare personnel, the sample collection process is slightly uncomfortable, but should not be painful.

Do you need to prepare for the test?

The main step you need to take to prepare for a COVID-19 test is to call ahead, confirm that you should be tested, and make an appointment. To avoid overwhelming testing sites, and limit the exposure of healthcare workers to the virus, individuals who have not been authorized to receive a COVID-19 test are generally not able to get tested as walk-ins at testing sites.

When you go to your appointment for your test, it’s best to go alone, if possible. This will also help limit exposure for healthcare workers. You should also bring an ID and your health insurance card, if you have insurance.

How long does it take to get test results?

Test results can be available anywhere from a matter of minutes to a matter of days, based on a number of different factors. There are now rapid-response tests that give results in under 20 minutes, but the wait time depends largely on what type of test your doctor or testing site uses.

Generally speaking, when you get a COVID-19 test, your doctor or personnel at the testing site should give you further information about when to expect your test results, and what to do while you wait for them.

How much does a coronavirus test cost?

Again, this depends on a few factors, and the situation is changing frequently.

According to federal legislation passed in March, most coronavirus testing should be free. However, this depends on whether the tests are processed at a public lab, such as those run by the CDC or state or city health departments, or at private or academic labs, which is where the majority of tests are currently being processed.

If you have insurance, your testing costs may be covered, although that may depend on whether you’ve met your annual deductible, and whether you go to an in-network or out-of-network facility. Since the start of the outbreak, insurance companies have been changing and updating their policies to address costs associated with coronavirus testing and treatment. If you have health insurance, it’s best to contact your insurance company to find out what exactly they will cover when it comes to coronavirus.

Does a negative result mean I don’t have COVID-19?

Not necessarily. It is possible that you were tested before the virus had multiplied enough to be detectable, or that your sample was compromised and returned a false negative. In order to stop the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible, even individuals who test negative for the illness are encouraged to behave as if they have it. This means self-isolating, maintaining at least six feet of distance between others, and avoiding touching common surfaces.

V. Additional Resources

Name Website Summary
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html The CDC is the United States’ leading national public health organization. Its mission is to protect public health and safety through the control and prevention of disease, injury, and disability in the U.S. and abroad.
World Health Organization (WHO) https://www.who.int/ A specialized agency of the United Nations, WHO is responsible for international public health. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, it has field offices worldwide.
Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) www.aphl.org The APHL is a nonprofit organization in the United States that represents laboratories that protect public health and safety.
State Departments of Health https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/fsis-content/internet/main/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/additional-recall-links/state-departments-of-public-health/ct_index Each state in the U.S. has its own department of health. These public health departments are currently coordinating efforts for COVID-19 testing and treatment.

VI. Sources