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6 common questions about coronavirus testing

In addition to wearing a mask and observing proper social distancing measures, getting a COVID-19 test has become an increasingly common activity. Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 testing has remained a crucial factor in the public health response to the virus, providing critical insights into how the virus spreads and probable hotspots. With many options for viral tests now available—including at-home tests and rapid testing—COVID-19 tests are now more accessible for individuals and availability continues to expand, and will continue to play a key role in battling the ongoing pandemic, even as vaccines become more widely available to the general public.

But even with more options available and extensive information around testing reported and evolving every day, it can be difficult to find clarity around basic questions, like who should be tested, when should you get a test, and what distinguishes one test from another.

Here are six common questions surrounding COVID-19 testing to help you better understand your options and what resources are available to you:

1. Who should get tested?

If you have been exposed to the virus call your doctor, who can advise if you should get tested, as well as where you should go for a test. If you are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, you can find a testing location by contacting your doctor or insurance provider, or by visiting your local government’s website.

 A woman receiving a COVID-19 test from her car, provider with gloved hands holds a testing swab

For frontline health care workers, it is recommended to get tested more often. Be sure to consult with your employer on the recommended, or in some cases required, cadence for testing.

Also, if you’re planning on traveling or visiting family and friends, consider getting tested prior to your departure. As a reminder, many states have COVID-related travel restrictions in place, so make sure you check before you go. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a helpful travel planner, which you can use to see the current measures and restrictions in place at your destination.


2. When should you get tested?

Individuals experiencing symptoms should get tested right away. If you are having trouble breathing or think it is in an emergency, seek out care immediately.

“If you think you have been exposed to the virus, it is recommended that you quarantine for at least two days before getting tested,” says Michael Sherman, M.D., chief medical officer at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Many COVID-19 tests aren’t as accurate after initial exposure because the viral load isn’t large enough to show up in your system that quickly. Talk to your doctor about when you should get tested.

For those who want to get tested as a preventive measure ahead of traveling or meeting with others outside of your home, follow the steps below in an effort to help prevent the spread of infection:

• Find out how long it will take to get results.

• Try to schedule your test as close to any planned visit or encounter as possible.

• Be sure to quarantine in between the time that you’re waiting for your test results and your encounter/visit.

A graphic showing the timeline between getting tested for COVID-19 and traveling. Day 1 is "Getting tested" Day 4 is "negative result" Day 5 is "Day of travel". A note includes that person should quarantine before receiving their test results.

3. How long will results take?

While rapid tests can provide results in as little as 15 minutes, they aren’t always as accurate and can be difficult to find depending on your location. Most testing locations can take between 24-48 hours to provide results. If lab capacity is limited due to high volumes of tests being conducted, however, results can sometimes take as long as five days to come back.


4. Should you get tested in person or use an at-home kit?

There are a variety of providers offering in-person COVID-19 testing, including urgent care centers, pop-up sites, pharmacies, and airports. In an effort to expand testing options, many laboratories and testing companies are also rolling out at-home COVID tests: the FDA authorized the first one in November 2020.

In-person COVID tests administered by a professional are often a better option if you have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms. Many of the current in-person options are faster and eliminate shipping time. However, if you’re looking to get tested as a preventive measure and are in control of your own schedule, you may want to consider an at-home test, which can arrive at your doorstep within 24-48 hours after requesting one. It’s important to note that at-home testing is constantly evolving, so check out the CDC’s website, talk to your doctor or contact your insurance provider for the latest information.

Remember, there are options for free preventive tests at various locations. Talk with your doctor to determine the best testing option for you.

5. What is an antibody test used for?

Over the shoulder view of healthcare worker in protective clothing, eyewear, bouffant cap, surgical mask, and gloves placing swab specimen in sterile container.Antibody tests can help public health experts measure the breadth and impact of the virus,” says Dr. Sherman. “However, these tests don’t give anyone with antibodies a ‘free pass’ to avoid social distancing measures and other guidelines.” The presence of antibodies does not necessarily indicate that you can’t and won’t spread COVID-19. Because of this, it is not recommended to routinely get tested for antibodies. If you do happen to get tested for antibodies and test positive though, you still should follow social distancing measures and wear a mask to protect yourself and others.

6. What will insurance cover?

Most insurance companies will cover viral tests for individuals who have been exposed or are currently experiencing symptoms. Preventive and antibody tests vary by insurer, so make sure you check your benefits online or call to see what your insurance covers. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care members can visit the COVID-19 Guide to Care to learn more about what’s covered.

The COVID-19 landscape is rapidly changing as public health officials learn more about the disease. Ensure you stay up to date on all the latest information and continue to follow guidance from your local public health office so we can collectively work to stop the spread of COVID-19.


This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.