A shortage of coronavirus tests has been one of the biggest problems in fighting the spread in the U.S. But screening is slowly becoming more available. And before the pandemic is over, we may all need to get tested.
But how exactly do they work? Are they painful? When should you get one?
We have the answers…
How the Coronavirus Test Is Done
First, a healthcare worker collects a sample. They use a long, thin swab and insert it up your nose. They go all the way to the back of your nasal passage to the area where it connects with your throat (the nasopharynx). They gently place the swab there to absorb secretions.
Kirsten Hokeness is an immunology expert. She says that if you “open your mouth and say ‘Ahh’ and look straight back,” that’s the spot. “The virus likes to latch on there and start replication.”
It’s not as bad as it might sound. It’s not extremely painful, but it is uncomfortable. Some people say it brings tears to their eyes or makes them feel like sneezing.
Do your best to stay still. The swabbing takes about 10 seconds, but if you fidget, it can take longer.
The sample is then placed in a sterile container. It’s sent to a lab. Technicians use a chemical that removes cells from the swab. They put the sample into liquid form. That liquid goes into a machine that detects genetic information. The machine determines whether ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the sample matches coronavirus.
Experts say the test is very accurate. It can detect even low levels of the virus. False positives are rare. This is when a test tells you that you have the virus, but you actually don’t.
False negatives occur more often, but are still uncommon. This is when the test tells you that you don’t have coronavirus, but you actually do.
It’s too soon to know the accuracy rate for coronavirus screening. But similar tests for the flu are accurate about 95% of the time.
The amount of time it takes to get your results varies. Some test sites promise immediate results. Some clinics might take a few days to a week. Private labs such as Labcorp and Quest Diagnostics generally take 10 to 14 days.
If you see ads for “at-home” tests, don’t buy them. The FDA warns that such tests are not legitimate.
When You Should Get a Coronavirus Test
The main COVID-19 symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. If you have them, call your primary care provider and be sure to self-isolate.
Testing capabilities are limited. There aren’t nearly enough tests for everybody who wants to get screened. Health authorities typically reserve tests for:
- People with severe symptoms.
- People with risk factors such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
- Healthcare workers.
Every state has its own protocols that dictate when and how people get tested. To find out what they are where you live, log on to your state’s health department website. It will tell you who qualifies for testing, and how and where to get it. You may have to go to a hospital or clinic. But many states have also set up drive-through testing sites.
Click HERE for coronavirus testing information for all U.S. states and territories.
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