COVID-19 testing and Thanksgiving: What experts want you to know

Korin Miller
·6 min read
People line up for coronavirus tests at Dodger Stadium, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
People line up for coronavirus tests at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles as the global outbreak of COVID-19 continues. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Want to get tested for COVID-19? In some places, you may have to wait up to eight hours for it.

That’s the word from New York City Councilmember Mark Levine, who wrote on Twitter Sunday that the city’s mass testing strategy is “not working.”

“Lines today were as long as 8 hours,” he said. “We need to expand capacity fast — pop-up sites, mobile sites, at-home tests, point-of-care testing. Our ability to beat this new wave depends on it.”

He’s not the only one sharing news of long lines at testing facilities.

If you’re planning to get tested, you probably have some questions about what to expect, what to do in the lead-up to your test and the aftermath, and, of course, what this means for your holiday plans. Here’s what you need to know.

There are different kinds of tests

Right now there are two main types of diagnostic tests for COVID-19 — that is, tests that look to see if you’re currently infected. These include a molecular test, such as a PCR test, which detects the coronavirus’s genetic material, and antigen tests, which look for specific proteins from the virus, per the Food and Drug Administration.

While both tests look for a current COVID-19 infection, there are a few key differences, according to the FDA:

  • PCR test: Most PCR tests are authorized for a patient’s sample to be collected — usually from a nasopharyngeal or nasal swab, but saliva or other samples can be used — and sent to a lab for analysis. It can take several days to get your results. However, these tests are considered very sensitive, meaning that the results tend to be pretty accurate.

  • Antigen test: These tests are taken via nasopharyngeal or nasal swab and are authorized for point of care, which means they don’t need to be shipped to a lab. You can get your results in less than an hour, but they’re generally considered less sensitive than PCR tests.

The tests that most people are getting at testing centers are PCR tests, Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.

You should be cautious before your test

If you’re getting a test because you want to know your COVID-19 status before an upcoming event, that’s one thing. But if you have symptoms of the disease, it’s important to isolate yourself before your test, Adalja says. “If you have any kind of symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19, you should be limiting your contact with others, being meticulous about social distancing, and wearing a mask when that’s not feasible,” Adalja says. It’s also a good idea to call your doctor if you have symptoms, he says.

Take steps to protect yourself while you wait to be tested

Whether there’s a long line to be tested or you get right in, Adalja says, it’s important to wear a mask as much as possible and try your best to distance yourself from others. That means your mask should only briefly be pulled down for your test and then put back into place right after.

After you leave, wash your hands well with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, Adalja says.

If you can, opt for an outdoor testing site, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Those, along with drive-through testing sites, are the safest,” he says.

Timing is crucial

“A COVID-19 test is a diagnostic test which looks at a moment in time,” Dr. Valerie Fitzhugh, an associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Pathology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “If you test too soon, there may not be enough viral RNA, in the setting of a PCR test, or antigen, in the setting of antigen testing, to get a positive result.” And, if you test too late, you may have a false negative result because the amount of antigen being made in your body decreases as you make antibodies to the virus or you’re far enough into the illness where you aren’t making as many copies of the virus within your body, she says.

It’s probably too late to get test results in time before Thanksgiving

In a best-case scenario, test results can come back in a few days. But things are different at the moment, with COVID-19 cases surging. “The turnaround time is really long right now,” Adalja says. As a result, the odds are pretty slim that you’ll get your results before the holiday.

Be mindful of who you’re around after you’re tested

If you got tested to find out your status before the holiday, you’ll want to make sure your (hopefully negative) test results are consistent before Thanksgiving. So, you’ll want to limit your contacts afterward, Adalja says. If you got tested because you’re having symptoms, you should quarantine afterward, per CDC guidelines.

Also, if you had a known exposure to someone with the coronavirus, you should quarantine for 14 days, regardless of the results, Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Even if your test is negative, if you have had this close contact, you should still self-quarantine,” he says.

Having a negative result doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not infected

“No test or multiple tests can 100 percent ensure that someone does not have the virus,” Kulkarni says. “That is the purpose of universal masking, distancing and avoiding large crowds at all times when outside of the home.”

If you have no symptoms and you’ve gotten a negative result, you probably don’t have COVID-19, Adalja says. But if you test negative and you do have symptoms, it’s possible that you have the virus — or that you have another health issue like the flu, he says. If that’s the case, “you should try to self-quarantine as much as possible. You don’t want to expose others, whether you have COVID-19, the flu or something else entirely,” Adalja says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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