I. How a coronavirus test works

Typically, healthcare providers will first test you for the flu, to rule out the more common illness that has symptoms closely resembling those of COVID-19. Rapid flu tests are available that can provide positive or negative results in minutes.

If the flu test comes back negative, you will then receive a COVID-19 test. The healthcare worker will take a nasal swab to collect a sample of mucus. In order to get the best sample possible, the swab should be inserted into the nose, pushed to the back of the throat, and then rotated to sweep up viral specimens. While the swabbing process should not be painful, it will likely be uncomfortable. Sneezing and a runny nose are common during and after a nasal swab.

The testing process  is called Reverse Transcriptase-Polymerase Chain Reaction, or RT-PCR. Depending on the method and equipment used, results can be processed in a few minutes to a few hours. Some sites are sending samples to labs for testing, so it may take a few days to a week to get results. Others use an on-site, rapid-response system called ID NOW, which can return results in minutes.

At the time you are tested, your healthcare provider should give you a timeframe and instructions for receiving your results.

II. When do I need to be tested for COVID-19?

As the availability of COVID-19 tests increases, more and more people are able to get tested, although the exact criteria and protocol for getting tested varies by location.

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.

The CDC has a Self-Checker tool that individuals can use to help them determine if they need to seek testing for COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), anyone who is experiencing the following severe symptoms should seek medical attention immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Loss of speech or movement

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and tiredness. Other, less common symptoms include aches and pains, sore throat, diarrhea, conjunctivitis, headache, loss of taste or smell, skin rash, or discoloration of fingers and toes.

Symptoms can appear anywhere from 2-14 days after infection, but on average appear 5-6 days after an individual becomes infected.

III. How do I get tested for COVID-19?

If you want to get tested for COVID-19 because you are showing symptoms of the illness, or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, your first step should be to call your primary healthcare provider or a local healthcare facility. Do not go directly to a healthcare facility without calling first. This measure is designed to maintain social distancing, and limit exposure to the disease, particularly for healthcare workers. If you need immediate medical assistance, you should call 911, but explain your symptoms to the dispatcher.

When you contact your healthcare provider, they will ask you questions to determine your risk factors for COVID-19. Questions may include whether you’ve had close contact with someone infected with COVID-19, and if you currently have any symptoms of the illness. Your doctor will also take into account any other potential risk factors, including age and other health conditions.

Based on your responses, your doctor may advise you to get tested, either at an on-site testing facility or by ordering an at-home test kit. They also may not recommend you for testing, and instead advise you to behave as if you do have the disease, self-isolate, and treat your symptoms at home.

IV. What do I do if I get approved for COVID-19 testing?

If your healthcare provider recommends that you do get tested for COVID-19, they should provide you with further instructions for where to go to get tested, or order an at-home testing kit for you. Testing processes currently vary by location and provider. You may be directed to go to your primary care physician’s office, your state or local health department, a drive-thru test site, or a hospital or urgent care facility.

In most cases, regardless of where you get tested, you will need a doctor’s recommendation and an appointment. Individuals are being advised not to go to a testing site as a walk-in without a recommendation from a doctor.

V. Do I have to pay to get tested for coronavirus?

Whether you are charged for a COVID-19 test, and how much it costs largely depends on which type of lab runs the test results, and what kind of insurance, if any, you have.

Tests conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or state or local public health laboratories are free, while tests run by private or academic health labs, and at-home test kits are not. Before you get tested, find out what type of test you are receiving, so you can plan accordingly, and are not surprised by a bill at the end of your visit, or at a future point in time.

Even if your test is run at a private or academic lab, you may not be charged for it. If you have health insurance, some or all of the cost of the test may be covered. This will depend on the type of insurance you have, your co-pay, and whether you have met your deductible.

To confirm what, if anything, you will pay for a coronavirus test, check with your healthcare and insurance providers first.

VI. What do I do while I wait for my results?

Because of the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, most individuals who believe they have the illness are encouraged to behave as if they do. This includes self-isolating, to avoid further spread of the illness, and notifying those with whom you’ve had recent contact. Individuals who may be will should wear a mask, avoid touching surfaces as much as possible, and stay at least six feet away from others.

VII. What do I do when I get my results?

When you receive your results, your healthcare provider should give you further instructions, depending on whether your test is positive or negative.

There is currently no specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, and your symptoms remain mild to moderate, treating the illness as you would any virus can help. This includes:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Staying well-hydrated
  • Taking cold or flu medicine to relieve symptoms like fever, aches and pains, coughing, and sore throat. (Keep track of ingredients and doses.)

If you test positive for COVID-19, you may also have contact with public health officials who are tracking the spread and effects of the illness.

Even if you test negative, it is still best to proceed cautiously. You can still contact the coronavirus, so continue to follow social distancing protocols, wash your hands thoroughly, and disinfect hard surfaces regularly.

VIII. 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.

IX. Sources