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Coronavirus testing: Everything we know

Amy Wilkinson writer headshot By | Updated on April 26, 2020
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Hudson, APRN, NP-C

With cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) on the rise and now reported in all 50 states, demand for coronavirus test kits continues to outstrip supply. Many people in the United States are left wondering if they should get tested for the potentially deadly illness, or whether a test will even be available at all. 

The current lag in testing stems from multiple factors, including the dissemination of faulty coronavirus test kits by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) back in February and manual laboratory processing that accommodated only 40 to 60 tests per day. These circumstances have left the U.S. far behind other countries in its testing for coronavirus. 

The process is starting to ramp up though: As of Mar. 16, Vice President Mike Pence said that 2,000 commercial labs would begin processing tests with their high-speed machinery, adding a capacity of tens if not hundreds of thousands of tests per week. Still, your ability to get a coronavirus test may depend on where you live and how severe your symptoms are. 

Who is getting tested for COVID-19

If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus or you begin to display symptoms like a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, your first course of action, per the CDC, should be to call your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will decide whether you need to be tested for the virus. 

In cases where coronavirus symptoms are mild, your doctor will likely tell you to stay home and self-isolate, without testing so as not to infect others or burden the already overloaded healthcare system. (There is currently no cure for human coronavirus, and a vaccine trial has just begun in the U.S.) 

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If your symptoms are severe enough (or you are part of a high-risk demographic, including the elderly and those who are immunocompromised), your healthcare provider will likely order a lab test for coronavirus. (Qualifying criteria vary from state to state.) On Mar. 3, Vice President Pence affirmed that anyone with a doctor’s order will be tested for coronavirus. 

If you’re not under the care of a healthcare provider and begin exhibiting what the CDC calls “emergency warning signs” of coronavirus, which include persistent chest pain, difficulty breathing, or blueish face and/or lips, you should seek immediate medical attention. Let whoever is admitting you know that you think you may have coronavirus and, if possible, wear a mask.

Where to get tested for COVID-19

All 50 states currently have at least one public health lab that is conducting the coronavirus test. Other academic or private laboratories may also be doing testing in your state, as capacity increases. 

And you may not even have to go into a lab to get tested: Many of the states hit hardest by the outbreak are running drive-thru and walk-through testing centers. More than 10 states, including New York and Washington, currently have drive-thru testing centers open. But note that, once again, criteria for getting tested is different in each state. 

The FDA recently gave emergency use authorization to LabCorp to allow testing of samples collected by patients using an at-home coronavirus test kit. With doctor approval, you will receive a kit in the mail, swab your nose, and then mail the kit back to LabCorp in an insulated package for analysis. Kits should be available in the coming weeks.

Despite all these efforts, there are still plenty of stories of people trying to get tested and unable to find a coronavirus test kit. If you do get tested, paying for the test may be your (or your insurance’s) responsibility until the coronavirus relief law goes into full effect (which mandates free testing for all). 

What is the coronavirus test like?

Coronavirus testing doesn’t require a urine or blood sample. Instead, a technician will insert a swab into your nose to reach the nasopharyngeal region (basically, the back of your throat just behind your nose) and collect cells. Some labs may also take a second swab in your mouth also aiming for the back of the throat. The process, while uncomfortable, lasts only about 10 seconds. 

The swabs are then tested in a lab to determine if the virus’ genetic markers are present and you are indeed infected. Given the sophistication of the test, however, it can only be run in labs, which takes longer than instant tests that diagnose other illnesses, like a rapid strep test. Turnaround times are dropping however—whereas it was taking three to four days to get results, now some labs are doing same-day processing. While you wait for results, it is best to self-isolate to avoid coronavirus transmission.

How accurate is the coronavirus test?

Despite initially faulty tests, the underlying technology behind the COVID-19 test is considered accurate by the medical community

The COVID Tracking Project keeps up-to-date numbers of coronavirus tests that have been processed in the U.S. However, it’s likely the numbers are much higher, since many with mild symptoms are not being tested.

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