Covid Testing: What You Need to Know

Ideally, you should be able to get a coronavirus test whenever you want it. But in the United States, test availability varies around the country. In some places, you still need a doctor’s prescription to get tested. In other communities, you can get tested easily by walking in to a clinic or even using a home test kit. There are four main reasons to get a test.

Symptoms: Feeling sick is the most urgent reason to get tested. A dry cough, fatigue, headache, fever or loss of sense of smell are some of the common symptoms of Covid-19. (Use this symptom guide to learn more.) While you’re waiting for your results, stay isolated from others and alert the people you’ve spent time with over the last few days, so they can take precautions. Many tests are most reliable during the first week you have symptoms.

Exposure: Did you find out that you recently spent time with an infected person? Were you in a risky situation, like an indoor gathering, or a large event or in an airport and airplane? You should quarantine and get tested. If testing isn’t widely available and you have only one chance to take a test, it’s best to get tested five to six days after a potential exposure to give the virus the opportunity to build up to detectable levels in the body. Test too early, and you might get a false negative result. If you’re in a city where it’s easy to get a test, get tested a few days after the exposure and, if it’s negative, get tested again in three or four days. If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises you quarantine for at least seven days and receive a negative test result before returning to normal activity.

Precautions: Some people get tested as a safeguard. Hospitals may require you to be tested before certain invasive medical procedures or surgery. Visitors to nursing homes may be given a rapid test before they are allowed to enter. Many colleges and boarding schools test students frequently and suggest they be tested before leaving campus and when they return. If you must travel, it’s a good idea to be tested before you leave, and a few days after you arrive. A negative test result is never a free pass to mingle with others, but knowing your infection status will lower the chance that you are unknowingly spreading the virus. Check on the turnaround time at the testing site in your area, and try to time it so you get a result as close as possible to the event or visit. Even if your test result is negative, you still need to wear a mask, maintain distance from others and take other precautions.

Community testing: In some cases, local health officials will encourage widespread testing for everyone, offering tests at health clinics, pharmacies and drive-through testing sites. Testing lots of people helps measure the level of spread in an area and can help slow or stop the spread in areas where known infections have occurred. In New York City, for instance, a health department advertising campaign is encouraging people to be tested often, even if they feel fine. “We learned that one of the ways we can control this virus effectively is by making sure as many people as possible are tested at a given time, so we can pick up people who are infected but don’t yet know they have the infection,” said Dr. Jay K. Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Health Department.

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