How to Get Tested for COVID-19:

Everything you need to know about Coronavirus testing

With Kim Langdon MD

 

According to the CDC, not everyone should be tested for the Coronavirus.

With the spread of COVID-19 taking over the globe, you probably want to know if you’ve contracted the virus and how it could affect you — especially if you’re sick and manage underlying health conditions. You may also want to know if you’re carrying the virus but are asymptomatic.

Getting tested for COVID-19 isn’t exactly an easy task — and each state handles testing differently. Be wary of at-home Coronavirus test kits, too. They’re not FDA-approved, and may not be accurate.

During COVID-19’s rapid spread, it’s hard to keep up with virus updates and resources, but here’s what you should be aware of when it comes to testing for the virus.

Why can’t I just get tested for the Coronavirus?

There are many complex and moving parts when it comes to getting tested for COVID-19. It’s natural to want to know if you have the virus, not only so you can stop the spread and get proper care, but because getting sick with COVID-19 can put you at some level of risk—especially if you are immunocompromised or have diabetes, heart, lung, or kidney issues. More than that, the very mystery around COVID-19 has us all feeling anxious about whether or not we have it. And that’s only natural, especially with the many hospitalizations and unfortunate deaths that have occurred.

Here’s the thing: You currently can’t just ask to be tested. According to the CDC, testing availability and criteria for eligibility (which determines if you can even get a test) differs state to state and then by locality. So, your getting tested is at the discretion of the state, local health departments, and your doctor. To get tested, you have to first call your state, local health department, or medical provider to see if you are eligible. Many of the tests are being reserved for older people or high-risk people with symptoms including high fever, shortness of breath, and cough.

Why is it so difficult to get tested? For one, Coronavirus testing in the United States had a rocky rollout, which led to widespread laboratory issues. This created a domino effect that led to chaotic and slower testing throughout the country. 

In some states, such as New York — which also happens to be a hotspot of the epidemic — many sick people were turned down for testing or tested but had a hard time getting their results. Today, New York State authorities say that they are able to run at least 6,000 tests per day—but they all have to be ordered by a healthcare provider. 

To put it mildly, the testing situation is still not perfect. “While supplies of these tests are increasing,” the CDC says, “it may still be difficult to find a place to get tested.” Your location, your symptoms, and whether or not you’ve traveled recently or may have been in contact with people who were a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis will all affect how difficult it is for you to be tested.

According to the CDC, not everyone who is sick should be tested 

The current CDC guidelines say that not everyone who is sick needs to be tested for COVID-19. This is because the majority of people who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms — say, a runny nose, fatigue, or a cough. If this is the case, you should stay home and recover by drinking plenty of fluids and getting loads of rest. Even without a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, if you are sick, the goal is to stay home and self-isolate until you are better so that you don’t inadvertently infect others. The virus travels through droplets via the mouth, and can linger on surfaces, which is why it is so contagious. 

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the growing concern over the lack of hospital space and medical resources for very sick patients, especially those who are high-risk.

The CDC instructs that some people with certain symptoms should be tested, though. If you have a high fever, labored breathing, pain in your chest, inability to wake up or function, or a bluish tint to the face or lips, you should seek medical attention right away. You’ll want to dial 911 and wear a face-mask before help arrives. 

The CDC also advises reaching out to your health care provider or hospital ahead of calling 911 so they can help limit your exposure when emergency services arrive. 

What you should know about COVID-19 test results

How are the tests performed? Kim Langdon, MD, explains, “The screening tests are done via nasal swab. Blood tests may also be useful for determining viral load and antibody response — to determine immunity.”

If you do get tested and you test positive, your health care provider will provide an action plan for you. It will likely include staying quarantined, and spending most of your time in a single room to prevent spread. You’ll want to disinfect surfaces daily as well, especially if you live with others.

If you test negative for the Coronavirus, it’s important that you know that you could still get it or that you could be too early in your infection for the test to show a positive. According to Dr. Langdon, getting a negative test result doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. You should still take precautions such as hand-washing and avoiding others. 

“As there are not enough tests for everyone, if you have symptoms, stay home and self-quarantine,” Dr. Langdon says. “Call your doctor if symptoms become severe. Do not go to the ER or your doctor’s office without calling them first. And if you think you may have exposed someone, let your local health department know.”

What about the at-home testing kits for the Coronavirus?

While rapid-result testing machines are going to become available in April, there are no FDA-approved at-home, by-mail testing kits. Be wary of anyone or any website selling or offering at-home testing kits as a response to the COVID-19 test shortage. Companies such as Nurx, EverlyWell, and Scanwell made at-home tests in March 2020, but they were not operating under FDA-approved guidelines. 

As a response, the FDA released a statement saying that these kits were not to be used: “Fraudulent health claims, tests, and products can pose serious health risks. They may keep some patients from seeking care or delay necessary medical treatment. The FDA reminds consumers to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines to call your medical provider if you have symptoms of COVID-19. Your medical provider will advise you about whether you should get tested and the process for being tested with an appropriate test." 

In short, only a trained medical professional should be administering your FDA-approved COVID-19 test. They’d then send your sample to a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) approved lab. 

According to Dr. Langdon, “These kits are very dangerous because they are not accurate, and even if you test negative by this type of test—which isn’t actual proof of being negative—you are putting yourself and others at risk because you might be positive.”

Think about it this: “One person can be responsible for tens of thousands being infected, and nobody wants that on their conscience,” says Dr. Giuseppe Aragona.

A quick caveat to the above statement: The Gates Foundation and Amazon are working together to create at-home test kits—but only in Seattle. These are not in breach of FDA guidelines, and they are not transported via mail like the fraudulent test kits that were being sold. 

But are FDA-approved at-home kits going to become available? The short answer is we’ll see. The response to COVID-19 changes day to day, so it’s possible. “The FDA sees the public health value in expanding the availability of COVID-19 testing through safe and accurate tests that may include home collection, and we are actively working with test developers in this space,” the FDA has announced.

As Dr. Langdon warns, endocrine disorder patients, especially diabetics, need to be extra careful these days. “People with diabetes are at higher risk for severe disease compared to others. The better glucose control, the better for you, as far as disease severity.”

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