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Coronavirus testing: Everything we know

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: As experts learn more about the novel coronavirus, news and information changes. For the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) surpassing 5 million in the U.S., and the country setting a single-day record for new cases (77,255) last month, testing is more imperative than ever. Yet, once again, echoing the early days of the pandemic, labs are facing a shortfall of supplies, meaning test results are being delayed by days if not weeks. 

Whereas at the beginning of the outbreak, the primary issue surrounding inadequate testing was a lack of coronavirus test kits (and earlier dissemination of faulty kits by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), this time around, it’s the lack of equipment needed to process samples—everything from pipette tips to containers to vital chemicals—that’s causing delays.

As many healthcare professionals have pointed out, long waits for COVID-19 test results render them largely useless. While the average incubation period for the coronavirus is typically five to six days, according to research, it can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks to develop COVID-19. That means many people who fear they were exposed and were tested could become sick long before they ever receive a positive lab diagnosis of coronavirus (and could unwittingly infect friends and family if they are not self-isolating while awaiting their results). 

Key takeaways:

  • There are two types of coronavirus tests available: diagnostic and antibody tests.
  • COVID-19 testing protocols vary by state, so call your healthcare provider to find out if you should get tested.
  • There are many drive-thru and walk-through testing locations in addition to doctor’s offices and other care facilities that are testing for coronavirus. You can also order an at-home test kit.
  • Diagnostic tests are typically done via nose swab but some at-home test kits require a saliva sample. Antibody tests are done via blood test.
  • Molecular diagnostic tests are highly accurate, according to the FDA. However, sometimes a second antibody test is needed to confirm test results.

Is there a test for coronavirus?

There are two types of coronavirus tests: diagnostic tests and antibody tests.

Diagnostic tests reveal whether you have a current infection. A positive result receives a coronavirus diagnosis. The other type of testing now available is antibody testing, which checks your blood for evidence of a past infection. One to three weeks after a person has COVID-19, their system will begin to produce antibodies, a protein that helps fight infection. An antibody test cannot be used to determine whether someone currently has COVID-19 (and it’s still unclear whether antibodies will indeed protect someone from getting COVID-19 a second time). 

Who is getting tested for COVID-19?

If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus or you begin to display COVID-19 symptoms like a fever, cough, sore throat, or shortness of breath, your first course of action, per the CDC, should be to call your healthcare provider. Your provider will help direct you to a testing site, if needed. Testing protocols vary from state to state, so check with your local health department for guidance. 

RELATED: Mild, moderate, and severe symptoms of COVID-19 

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 can I get tested for COVID-19?

All 50 states 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. 

But you may not even have to go into a lab to get tested: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization to more than 100 companies to allow testing of samples collected by patients using an at-home coronavirus test kit. With healthcare provider approval, you will receive a kit in the mail, swab your nose or collect a saliva sample, and then mail the kit back in an insulated package for analysis. 

RELATED: What we know about COVID-19 at-home test kits

Many states have also implemented drive-thru and walk-through testing centers. 

Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation to ensure that anyone who needs a coronavirus test would be able to get one without having to worry about cost. However, there are still many reports of patients being hit with large bills for their test.  

How do you test for coronavirus?

Coronavirus testing requires a healthcare worker or technician to insert a swab into your nose to reach the nasopharyngeal region (basically, the back of your throat just behind your nose) and collect cells. It can also be collected via nasal mid-turbinate swab or anterior nares (nasal swab) with a smaller swab or via oropharyngeal (back of throat) as the only sample. The process, while uncomfortable, lasts only about 10 seconds. 

The swabs are then tested either using point-of-care testing equipment or in a lab to determine if the virus’ genetic markers are present and you are indeed infected.

There is also a blood test being developed in Australia that claims to return results in 20 minutes.

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 molecular COVID-19 diagnostic test is considered highly accurate by the medical community. Antigen tests and antibody tests may be less accurate. For example, if you receive an antibody test too soon, you may receive a false negative test. You might require a second test to confirm the negative result.

The COVID Tracking Project keeps up-to-date numbers of coronavirus tests that have been processed in the U.S., in addition to probable cases of COVID-19, per CDC guidance.