Clearing Confusion: Coronavirus Tests

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By News Team on December 1, 2020

Coronavirus tests are now widely available, and people’s understanding of how they work varies just as widely.

We checked in with Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, M.D., medical director of Carilion Clinic Infection Prevention and Control, to better understand who should get tested, which test they should take and what they should do while waiting for results.

Because information can change quickly as we learn more about the virus, Dr. Baffoe-Bonnie recommends visiting official websites such as the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Consistent, reliable sources such as these are the best places to find up-to-date information about the virus and effective guidance on preventing it,” he said.

Who Should Get Tested?

While staying home when you are sick is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus, that should not keep you from seeking emergency medical care if you or a loved one:

  • Have trouble breathing
  • Feel persistent chest pain or pressure
  • Experience a new onset of confusion
  • Have trouble waking up or staying awake
  • Have a bluish tinge to the lips or face

For symptoms of COVID-19 that are less urgent, consult with your primary care provider or visit an urgent care center such as Carilion Clinic’s VelocityCare.

You should also consider getting a test if you have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19. And of course, it is vital that you follow through with testing if you are referred by your provider or a local health department.

If your provider is unavailable, such as after hours, Dr. Baffoe-Bonnie recommends using Virginia’s COVIDCHECK to guide your decision on when to seek testing and care. The VDH COVID-19 Testing Sites map can help you find one near you, including Carilion Clinic’s multiple testing sites in our service area.

Two types of tests are currently available: viral tests and antibody tests

Viral Tests

According to VDH, viral tests detect the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19; in other words, it will tell you if you have an infection at the time you are tested. Viral tests use saliva or samples taken from the back of the nose, mouth or throat with nasopharyngeal swabs. Depending on your circumstances or testing site, your test may be administered by a technician or given to you to self-collect. The test is uncomfortable for a moment but not painful.

There are two types of viral tests: molecular/PCR and antigen/rapid tests. 

Molecular/PCR tests look for the virus’s genetic material; test results may take a number of days to return. 

Antigen/rapid tests look for a specific protein on the surface of the virus. While results are available sooner, false positives and false negatives are possible; these tests are most appropriate for people who have recently developed symptoms 

Antibody Tests

There is one standard antibody/serology test for COVID-19. It might tell you if you had a past infection, but it may not show whether you are currently infected because it looks not for the virus itself, but for the proteins our immune systems make when the virus enters the body. According to the CDC, your body can take up to 3 weeks after infection to begin making antibodies. Blood samples are used to perform serology tests.

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Having antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 might provide protection from getting infected with the virus again; Dr. Baffoe-Bonnie points otu that we do not know this for sure. We also need to learn more about how much protection the antibodies might provide or how long this protection might last. Take the Carilion Clinic Southwest Virginia Seroprevalence Survey to help Carilion Clinic study coronavirus antibodies in our region.

The CDC advises against relying on antibody tests to diagnose COVID-19 alone, or to use results from antibody tests to determine when to return to work, end self-quarantine or other actions that can affect public health.

What To Do While You Wait for Results

If you are taking an antibody test to determine past infection, potentially donate plasma or participate in Carilion’s seroprevalence study but are not suspected of having a current COVID-19 infection, our experts recommend taking standard precautions while waiting for your results: 

  • Stay home whenever possible
  • Avoid crowds and enclosed spaces if you must go out
  • Wash your hands, keep your distance and wear a mask—every time

 If you are awaiting results of a viral test to learn about current infection, stay home, self-isolate and prepare for a positive test. You can infect others even if you have no symptoms—and they may develop a much more severe infection.

If you have more general questions, visit CarilionClinic.org/coronavirus and the CDC and VDH websites. For questions about your own situation, contact your primary care provider.

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