I. When to get tested for COVID-19

There are many reasons why diagnostic testing for COVID-19 is important. On a macro level, knowing how many active, confirmed cases there are is essential to helping public health experts understand and manage the spread of the disease. On a micro level, individuals with confirmed infections can adjust their behavior accordingly, by seeking treatment and isolating to avoid infecting others.

Since the start of the pandemic, the guidelines for who can get a diagnostic test for COVID-19 have changed, based on new information about the disease, where an individual lives or works, and available testing resources.

Decisions about who can get tested for COVID-19 are still largely made by individual healthcare providers, and state and local health departments. Generally speaking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that individuals seek diagnostic testing if they have symptoms of COVID-19; are asymptomatic but were exposed to COVID-19, or need screening to ensure they can safely return to work or other activities.

II. What to do if you test positive for COVID-19

If you receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, your healthcare provider should give you further instructions about what to do, in terms of treating your symptoms and seeking medical attention; participating in public health surveillance efforts, and isolating yourself to prevent further spread of the disease.

Limiting contact with others, including members of your household and people in the community, is extremely important because of how contagious COVID-19 is. The CDC recommends that individuals with a confirmed case of COVID-19 should stay at home, and separate themselves from others in their household as much as possible, including remaining in a designated “sick room” or area, and using a separate bathroom. This is necessary to prevent further spread of the disease through direct contact with others, or through contamination of shared surfaces and spaces.

Infected individuals can end their isolation period once their respiratory symptoms have improved, after experiencing three days with no fever, and once 10 days since the first appearance of symptoms have passed, according to the CDC.

An estimated 40 percent of people infected with COVID-19 show no symptoms, but can still spread the disease to others. For individuals who test positive but are asymptomatic, the CDC recommends isolating for 10 days after testing to avoid infecting others.

The effects of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe, which will determine what kind of treatment infected individuals need. Individuals with mild symptoms can typically recover at home using common virus remedies including rest, hydration, and acetaminophen (Tylenol) to alleviate fever and pain.

Individuals should monitor their symptoms, and seek immediate medical attention if they experience any emergency warning signs that their condition is worsening. Emergency warning signs include trouble breathing, persistent chest pressure or pain, new confusion, an inability to wake or stay awake, and bluish lips or face. Although there are still many unknowns about treating severe cases of COVID-19, doctors have developed some effective treatments that can improve recovery chances.

When you receive your positive diagnosis, you may also receive instructions about aiding public health surveillance efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. This can include participating in contact tracing, in which information is collected about people with whom you had recent contact, so they can be notified about their exposure to the disease.

III. What to do if you test negative for COVID-19

A negative result on a COVID-19 diagnostic test could mean a few things. It is possible that you are not infected with COVID-19; you did not have an active infection when you were tested, but have since developed an infection, or you do have an active infection, but the test results are inaccurate.

If you receive a negative test result, but are experiencing symptoms, it is possible that you received a false negative. This is more likely if you were tested early, before you started experiencing symptoms. You may want to get re-tested to confirm your infection. If you are unable to get re-tested, you should proceed under the assumption that you are infected, and follow the instructions above for treatment and isolation.

If you test negative, it could also mean that you are infected but are asymptomatic, or do not have COVID-19. In these cases, proceed with caution to prevent infecting others, or contracting the illness. Follow the CDC’s guidelines for preventing infection, including wearing a cloth face mask when around others, practicing physical distancing, and washing your hands regularly. Another option is to seek antibody testing, which detects the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in a person’s immune system, confirming that a person was infected, but has since recovered.

What to do while waiting for your COVID-19 test results

As cases of COVID-19 rise in the U.S., the waiting period for diagnostic test results has increased in many places. How long you will have to wait for your test results varies; your healthcare provider should give you a timeframe for receiving your results when you are tested.

Regardless of how long it takes to get your results, you should exercise caution during your waiting period, to avoid spreading the disease to others if you are infected, or contracting COVID-19 if you are not.

If you have symptoms, or know that you were exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case, quarantine yourself and avoid contact with others as much as possible. If you must leave your home, follow safety precautions like mask-wearing and physical distancing. Monitor and treat your symptoms, and seek immediate medical treatment if you experience any emergency warning signs.

IV. 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.

V. Sources