The Ins and Outs of Testing for COVID-19
There’s still a lot of confusion over who can get tested and where to go.
Testing for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, is essential to identify and treat the sick and for “contact tracing” – that is, working backwards from those who test positive to identify (and isolate) people who may have come in contact with them and been exposed to the virus. Widespread testing, along with other measures, has been credited with helping South Korea keep the number of new infections and deaths from COVID-19 down. But testing has been problematic in the United States, where lack of clear instructions, no uniform path to testing, a shortage of tests and now a shortage of protective equipment for those doing the testing have all come together to sow confusion.
Who can get tested?
Right now, the testing situation is still fluid. Not everyone who wants a test can get one, but public health officials and private companies are scrambling to make it easier for more people to do so. In some cities and states, getting tested is already easier; in other cities, such as hard-hit New York, authorities are asking that only high-risk people and the sickest patients get tested because of the shortage of supplies.
Generally, to qualify for testing, you will have to have symptoms compatible with COVID-19: a fever, cough, shortness of breath and possibly gastrointestinal issues. The CDC has a Coronavirus Self-Checker to help you decide. In a White House briefing, federal officials have asked Americans not to seek out a test, unless they are showing symptoms.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19, contact your doctor or your local public health department to find out if you qualify for testing, what type of facility is available near you, and what steps you should take to prevent infecting others when going to get tested. Some cities/counties have already set up drive through options.
How does it work?
The most common test for COVID-19 is the PCR test. The testing process is straightforward. It’s done the same way as a flu test. A health care worker takes a swab from your nose and mouth. The sample is sent to a lab, where it’s checked for genetic material associated with the virus.
If you test positive
If you test positive and have mild symptoms, the CDC advises that you can isolate and care for yourself at home. But if you also take immunosuppressant drugs, you want to be sure your doctor knows because limited data has shown that some medications used to treat autoimmune types of arthritis may increase your risk for a more severe disease course. Older adults and those with “severe underlying chronic medical conditions” (like heart or lung disease or diabetes) appear to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications. Because of that, contact your doctor even if your illness is mild.
If you have severe symptoms, such as trouble breathing or persistent pain/pressure in the chest, get medical attention right away. If you think you need emergency care, call ahead to alert your doctor or the hospital. If possible, wear a mask to protect others.
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