I. Current Guidelines for COVID-19 testing

To help mitigate shortages of coronavirus test kits, testing materials, and protective gear for healthcare workers, a number of protocols have been put in place to determine who gets tested for COVID-19. Public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided guidelines that state and local health departments and individual healthcare providers are using to make decisions about who should be tested.

Currently, the following individuals are prioritized for testing:

  • Healthcare workers and first responders with COVID-19 symptoms
  • Older individuals who display COVID-19 symptoms, particularly those who live in group settings
  • Individuals who have other illnesses that would be treated differently if they were infected with COVID-19
  • Individuals displaying severe symptoms, including difficulty breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, new confusion or inability to arouse, or bluish lips or face

Depending on a number of other factors, including severity of symptoms, exposure to COVID-19, age, and overall health, individuals may or may not be tested at this time.

II. COVID-19 symptoms

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that targets the lungs, and symptoms of the illness include:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Tiredness
  • Achiness
  • Sore throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Runny nose
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

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. Currently, coronavirus tests are only being administered at the discretion of these individuals or agencies. Do not go directly to your doctor’s office, hospital, healthcare facility, or other testing site without calling first 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.

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.

Although several companies were starting to advertise and sell at-home testing kits, the Food and Drug Administration has not yet authorized any at-home COVID-19 test kits, and distribution has ended pending further notice.


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 hours to a matter of weeks, based on a number of different factors. Many labs are dealing with a backlog of tests due to limited supplies of necessary materials and equipment. While new testing methods have been developed that provide results faster, there is also debate about where and how to deploy those tests.

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

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.htmlThe 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.orgThe APHL is a nonprofit organization in the United States that represents laboratories that protect public health and safety.
State Departments of Healthhttps://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_indexEach 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