Testing may or may not be recommended. Your best bet? Call your doctor first.

By Leah Groth
Updated May 11, 2020
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As cases of COVID-19 in the US continue to rise—upwards of 1.3 million people in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the government is attempting to keep up by making some major changes to the criteria used for coronavirus testing.

Under the latest iteration of CDC guidelines, COVID-19 testing is considered a "high priority" for hospitalized patients with symptoms and for residents of long-term-care or congregate living facilities who have symptoms. (Healthcare workers, people who work in congregate living settings, and first responders with symptoms are also high priority.)

Next in line—deemed "priority"  for testing—are people with symptoms of infection. That includes people with fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, new loss of taste or smell, vomiting or diarrhea, and/or sore throat. Health departments and clinicians may also decide to test people without symptoms for any reason, say, for public health monitoring and surveillance purposes.

CDC testing criteria have evolved since the US began experiencing community-wide outbreaks of COVID-19. Under previous guidance, testing was mainly reserved for people if they had been hospitalized, come into contact with a coronavirus patient, or had traveled to places where the disease was prevalent.

With rising demand for testing and ongoing shortages of test kits, the true number of coronaviruses is likely higher than reported, per the New York Times. Even as testing ramps up, it still may be difficult to find a place to get tested, the CDC acknowledges. But keep in mind that most people will have mild illness and can recover at home—they may not even need to be tested, CDC points out.

What to do if you think you have coronavirus

If you experience symptoms related to coronavirus—cough; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; fever; chills; muscle pain; sore throat; new loss of taste or smell; or, less commonly, GI symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea—and you want get tested, or if you believe you have been exposed to the coronavirus, your first step is to call ahead to your healthcare provider. That gives the provider's office time to take steps to to keep other people from being exposed and infected before examining you. If you do go to a doctor's office while experiencing symptoms, you're advised to wear a face mask.

Doctors are now advised, per the CDC, to use their best judgment regarding whether a patient should be tested. That decision may depend on a person's symptoms or known exposure to someone with COVID-19, for example. Doctors may also decide whether or not testing is warranted based on infections in an area and known community transmission, for example.

Anyone having severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, inability to awake or stay awake, new confusion, or bluish lips or face should seek immediate medical attention. Tell the 911 operator you are calling for someone who may have COVID-19. CDC adds that older patients and people who have underlying medical conditions or who are immunocompromised should contact their physician early in the course of their illness, even if it's mild.

What happens if you have to get tested for coronavirus

Testing options and availability vary by location. Once your doctor or another public health official decides that it's a good idea to test you for coronavirus, you may be directed to a local testing site, be it a hospital, clinic, or drive-through testing location. You can also check with your state or local health department for information on where testing is being offered.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently authorized emergency use of two new tests, allowing you to collect a nasal swab or a saliva sample  at home. In either case, you still need to send out your sample to a lab for testing.

The patient's part of the test itself is similar to a rapid flu test. "Testing for the novel coronavirus involves collecting samples from the respiratory tract, such as from the nasopharynx [the upper part of the throat behind the nose], the throat, or sputum [a mixture of saliva and mucus from the respiratory tract]," Marie-Louise Landry, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease expert and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory, tells Health

Once a swab sample is collected and shipped off to a lab equipped with COVID-19 test kits, lab technicians may use a procedure called reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to look for the coronavirus, according to CNN. Essentially, the test can tease out the coronavirus' genetic code and amplify it within a patient's specimen to determine a positive test result. The COVID-19 test can only determine if an individual is currently infected and will not diagnose any prior illness. 

Some labs say they can provide test results in 24 to 48 hours, during which patients will likely be kept in quarantine or asked to self-quarantine.

Recently, the FDA authorized a new option that promises to speed up the process. The test developed by San Diego-based Quidel Corporation uses specimens collected from nasal swabs to look for proteins, or antigens, to SAR-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It can be performed by labs and other sites equipped with Quidel's testing device, and unlike the PCR test, results are promised in 15 minutes.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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