Everything you need to know about getting tested for coronavirus

More accessible testing is crucial.
CDC’s laboratory test kit for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)
Strict rules exist around who can get screened for COVID-19. CDC

Follow all of PopSci’s COVID-19 coverage here, including travel advice, pregnancy concerns, and the latest findings on the virus itself.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the US’s first case of COVID-19 on February 26, states across the country—including Washington, New York, and California—have continued to report new cases of people infected with the novel virus.

Positive tests are continuing to be reported each week (check here for the latest numbers). However, it’s still not clear how severe the outbreak will become, or how many people will get infected with the virus. As the disease becomes harder to track, more people will need to be tested. Here’s what you need to know about getting tested for COVID-19.

How can I get tested for COVID-19?

In all likelihood you’ll get tested for COVID-19 is if you see your doctor and they determine a test is necessary. But local governments are struggling with demands, so it’s unlikely that you’ll get checked unless you show symptoms or have been living with someone who’s confirmed positive for the virus.

Two weeks ago, CDC head Robert Redfield said the US had produced 75,000 tests for COVID-19. At the time, it was clear that that wouldn’t be enough, given the number of Americans at risk of being exposed is in the tens of millions. The most recent CDC numbers show that a little more than 75,000 individuals have been tested in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

The road to ramping up testing in the US has been a rocky one. Once COVID-19 began spreading throughout China, the CDC researched and developed a test to detect the new coronavirus. At first, the new test remained unavailable for widespread use in hospitals and clinics. Because of a faulty ingredient in kits that the department sent to labs nationwide last month, at first only a handful of state and local health departments were able to perform the test. On February 26 the CDC and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that they’d fixed the problem and that 40 laboratories around the US so far have been authorized to use a modified form of the test.

Last month, testing was limited to people who had recently traveled to China or came into contact with someone known to be infected with the coronavirus. On February 27 the agency expanded its guidelines for who could be tested for COVID-19, but that was still limited to people who were showing symptoms or who had come into contact with someone exposed to the virus or traveled to areas where it was actively spreading.

Testing guidelines are continuing to expand. Earlier in March, Vice President Mike Pence announced the CDC would be lifting all restrictions on coronavirus testing. These new guidelines would allow anyone who thinks they could have the virus or is showing any cold- or flu-like symptoms to get tested. Despite this, both public health officials and healthcare companies that provide the testing supplies have doubts they’ll be able to support the number of individuals that would likely need to be tested under these new rules. More information should become available about testing opportunities in the coming days and weeks.

In a press conference on March 11, National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci and CDC head Robert Redfield said more medical diagnostic companies—including Quest and Labcorp—are now offering tests to detect COVID-19, which will help alleviate some of the burden on the departments. Redfield said those companies will send their results to the CDC so that nationwide data will remain updated.

Several states have opened drive-thru testing sites for residents, but wait times have been long and supplies limited. As of now, officials are only recommending people who have symptoms or have come into contact with someone who’s tested positive to try the drive-thrus. Eventually, Fauci wants governments to expand into what’s called surveillance testing, where individuals in afflicted areas are screened, despite not showing symptoms or having been exposed. (The system has already proven effective in keeping the virus in check in South Korea and Iceland.) If individuals like this were to test positive, that would mean the virus is spreading quietly throughout that community. According to Fauci, the CDC has already started this type of testing in a number of US cities and has plans to add more.

Testing for the coronavirus isn’t as simple as it sounds. Samples must be analyzed in a lab (unlike a pregnancy or flu test that can be done in a doctor’s office) and take at least four to six hours to complete. On March 23, the FDA approved the first rapid COVID-19 test: It delivers results in 45 minutes and should be available in ERs and hospitals by early next week. Other companies are working on at-home swab kits that cost upwards of $150 and pull up results in three days to a week. Some will need a doctor’s approval; many are still under FDA review.

If you’re worried you might have been exposed to the coronavirus, you should first call your doctor. If your doctor evaluates you and suspects you have COVID-19, they will consult with state public health authorities, who in turn will contact the CDC, says Paul Biddinger, director of the Center for Disaster Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

If you’re tested for the virus, depending on the test used, doctors will likely take a swab of your nose, your mouth, and possibly the gunk you cough up. They’ll also collect a blood sample and send everything to a laboratory.

“Then it’s up to state public health authorities to determine what the patient should do while we are awaiting the results,” Biddinger says. Typically, people who are being evaluated for the coronavirus are kept isolated either at home or in a hospital.

What happens if I test positive for the disease?

Getting treated for the coronavirus doesn’t hinge on a positive test. There currently isn’t any antiviral treatment recommended to combat COVID-19, although the National Institutes of Health has started clinical trials for a drug called remdesivir. For now, treatment is focused on helping people withstand the symptoms of the virus, especially more dangerous ones like difficulty breathing, fever, and dehydration.

“The most important implications of a positive test are to help with appropriate isolation and quarantine to limit the spread of illness,” Biddinger says. If someone tests positive for the disease, public health officials will try to determine whether they might have infected anyone else. People who have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 can then isolate themselves and get treated if they too are sick, or keep themselves in quarantine if they aren’t showing symptoms.

More accessible testing is imperative

As the disease spreads, it will be crucial for testing to become more widely available, Biddinger says. “If we have to admit patients to a hospital, we really need to know whether they have COVID-19 or not to make sure we’re using appropriate infection control precautions.”

“People with mild illness with fever and cough should follow simple precautions to stay at home and stay away from others. They do not necessarily need to get tested for COVID-19,” he says. In fact, staying at home when you have mild and nonspecific cold-like symptoms might even prevent you from catching COVID-19. “In China we saw that their healthcare system was overwhelmed with patients presenting with mild illness requesting testing,” Biddinger explains. “That both puts a significant burden on the medical system and potentially brings together people who do and don’t have illness and provides greater opportunity for the illness to spread.”

You can find more information about COVID-19 and what to do if you think you might have it on the CDC website.