Blog

May 30, 2020

COVID-19 Testing: What to Expect

Sophia L. Thomas, DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP

The severe respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus, which causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), can impact individuals differently. Some individuals may show no or few signs of the illness, but still be contagious and able to share the virus with others without knowing they are spreading the illness. This is particularly concerning as these individuals could expose their family members, coworkers and others to the illness who are at higher risk for severe illness, complications and even death.   

In addition to wearing masks and socially distancing to prevent the spread of infection, one of the most important ways to combat COVID-19 is through accurate and accessible testing. With so much talk about tests, it’s important to understand what tests are available, when you should be tested and what to expect when you receive one.

What Types of COVID-19 Tests Are Available? 

There are two types of COVID-19 tests. One tests whether a person currently has a COVID-19 infection. The other tests to see if an individual was previously infected. 

Current Infection

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests (viral or genetic tests) tell if you are currently infected with the coronavirus. A sample is taken from the patient by a health care provider and sent to a laboratory to look for the presence of the the virus at the DNA and RNA levels. Every person contains different DNA, which is the genetic code that makes them a unique individual. The RNA acts as the messenger in the human body that carries instructions from the DNA on how to handle proteins and other items that enter the body. PCR tests are used to identify the presence of an antigen (a foreign substance or toxin) in an individual’s body. By detecting the viral RNA, which are present in the body even before symptoms appear, health care providers can determine very early whether an individual has contracted a virus, and early detection increases treatment options.

This test for COVID-19 involves inserting a six-inch long nasal swab — similar to a long Q-tip — into the space between the nose and the mouth on both sides, rotating the swab several times for 15 seconds, then placing the swab into a sealed container, which is sent to a laboratory for examination. Inserting a swab that far into the nasal cavity can cause discomfort but is necessary to extract an adequate sample for accurate test results. 

For these tests, the time to receive results varies from as little as 24 hours to as long as four to five days. When receiving the test, be sure to ask the nurse practitioner (NP) about the length of time expected to receive your results and what steps you need to take to receive them. While you are awaiting the results, you should stay home ( self-quarantine) and limit contact with anyone else to prevent the potential to share the virus. 

Additional testing options are beginning to become available — such as home test kits and rapid detection kits — however, access to testing can vary based upon geographic area.  

Previous Infection

Serology tests (antibody tests) can determine if you have previously had an infection. It takes your body approximately one to three weeks after infection with COVID-19 to produce antibodies, substances that help your body detect and defend against an infection. When the human body fights off an infection, it creates antibodies, which help to build immunity to the virus, enabling the individual to recover. By testing for these antibodies, NPs can determine if an individual has previously been infected. It is still too early for scientists to determine how long — if at all — an individual will be immune to COVID-19 after being infected, but the presence of antibodies in the body is a definite indicator of prior infection. 

There are several different antibody tests available. Some require a health care provider to draw blood, which is then sent to the laboratory for examination. Other tests that are available direct to consumers from some manufacturers, retailers and laboratories require only a finger prick to obtain a small blood sample, which is then sent in for analysis. 

The timeframe to receive your antibody test results is typically a few days, which is consistent with other blood test results you would receive during routine check-ups. 

When Should You Be Tested?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most individuals who contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms and can recover at home without the need to be tested. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 and want a test to be sure of your diagnosis, it’s important to contact your primary care provider as a first step. 

The CDC has released guidance to determine who should get tested for COVID-19. Patients are identified by the CDC as high priority or priority, based on the following criteria:

High Priority

  • Hospitalized patients with symptoms.
  • Health care 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.

Priority

  • People with symptoms of potential COVID-19 infection, including: fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, new loss of taste or smell, vomiting or diarrhea and/or sore throat.
  • People 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.

If you would like to get an antibody test to determine if you were previously infected, please contact your primary care provider, as there are now many different options available through manufacturers, retailers and laboratories. 

If you suspect you have COVID-19, either because you are experiencing symptoms or you have been exposed to someone who you are aware has or had the virus, it’s important to self-quarantine until you have test results to confirm your diagnosis. To find a health care provider near you who can order a COVID-19 test based on CDC and state health department criteria, consider an NP.