COVID-19 testing is helpful in controlling the spread of the virus — as well as keeping you and your family informed if an exposure pops up.
To help increase access to rapid testing, each household can order a one-time shipment of four over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests at no charge, through the federal government. These tests are shipped directly from covidtests.gov.
To help you understand COVID-19 testing, Dr. Sanford Cohen, the chief medical officer for clinical strategy, answers some commonly asked questions, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
What are the signs/indications that I should consider taking a COVID-19 test?
Self-testing can be useful and tell an individual if there is a current infection with COVID-19. There are four reasons you may want to consider an at-home, over-the-counter test:
1. There are signs or symptoms of COVID-19, including, but not limited to:
- Loss of taste or smell
- Nausea or vomiting
2. There are no symptoms, but a close contact has occurred with someone who has confirmed COVID-19. The CDC defines a close contact as someone who was less than 6-feet away from a person for more than 15 minutes. If you were in close contact with someone with COVID-19, the CDC recommends testing after at least five days, plus a second test in one or two days if your first test is negative. You could also test negative if the specimen was collected too early in your infection. In this case, since you could test positive later during your illness, the CDC recommends that you consider serial testing.
3. There are no symptoms but there is a potential risk of high transmission. For example, you may be attending a gathering such as a wedding or will be traveling on an airplane. If there are symptoms, testing should occur as soon as possible. If there has been a known exposure, testing should occur between five to seven days after the exposure. If your initial test is negative, it’s recommended to test again two days later to confirm. This is regardless of vaccination status.
4. When asked by a health care professional or public health official
What are the types of COVID-19 tests?
There are two kinds of rapid tests, authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to diagnose infection. They are easy to use but it’s crucial to follow the instructions carefully.
- A rapid test is an antigen test that can detect if you have an active COVID-19 infection. It is typically taken with a nasal or throat swab and the results are usually provided within 15-30 minutes. According to the CDC, results may be less reliable for someone without symptoms and follow-up tests may be required. These tests may be available at community sites in your area or available to purchase at a local pharmacy for at-home use.
- A PCR test, or molecular test, relies on a laboratory method called polymerase chain reaction to detect the virus. The sample is usually collected through a nasal swab or saliva. The collection of material to be tested can be taken at home, at a testing facility or by a medical provider, then processed by a lab. Results usually come back within 1-3 days. The CDC says the results are reliable for someone with and without symptoms. No follow-up test is required.
Additionally, you can visit your local health department’s website to look for the latest information on testing sites and at-home kits. If you’re unsure which test to take or when to take it, the CDC has a COVID-19 Viral Testing Tool to help you decide.
What should I do while awaiting a COVID-19 test result?
This will help those around you from possibly getting COVID-19, if you eventually test positive. It’s also recommended that you wear a well-fitted mask, if you have to be around others in your home.
What should I do if I test positive for COVID-19?
If you tested positive for COVID-19 and have symptoms, the CDC recommends staying home and isolating from others for at least five days, no matter the vaccination status.
If you experienced symptoms, the CDC recommends ending isolation after five days – if you no longer have a fever and symptoms are improving. If you didn’t have symptoms, you can end isolation five days after the positive test result. The CDC recommends those with a severely ill case should isolate for at least 10 days.
In addition, you should:
- Avoid travel
- Wear a mask around others in your home for 10 days
- Avoid being around others who are considered high-risk
- Inform close-contacts that you tested positive for COVID-19
If you test positive for COVID-19 and have one or more health conditions that increase your risk of becoming very sick, treatment may be available, according to the CDC.
“If you feel you might be candidate, contact your health care provider right away after a positive test to help determine if you may be eligible, even if your symptoms are mild,” Dr. Cohen said. “Timing is critical because treatment must start within the first few days to be effective. If you are pregnant, talk to your women’s health care provider.”
What should I do if I test negative for COVID-19?
If you test negative for COVID-19, the virus was not detected. However, the CDC says if you have symptoms, you may have received a false negative and could still have COVID-19.
The CDC recommends that you should isolate from others, in addition to contacting your healthcare provider about any symptoms you may be experiencing, especially if they get worse.
If you were in close contact with someone with COVID-19 and don’t have any symptoms, the CDC says you are likely not infected but that still doesn’t rule it out completely. The CDC recommends quarantining if you are not vaccinated, have not completed a primary vaccine series or have not received all recommended booster shots.
If you develop symptoms during home quarantine, you’re encouraged to contact your doctor about follow-up testing, as well as isolate from others.
How do I get at-home, over-the-counter COVID-19 tests?
Recent updates to federal guidelines may allow you to purchase COVID-19 tests at little or no cost during the national public health emergency period. The process for over-the-counter, at-home testing reimbursement will vary, depending on your specific health plan.
If you’re a UnitedHealthcare individual and employer group health plan member, start by signing into myuhc.com to learn about your specific benefits and how to get your at-home tests.
For additional information on when to stay home, as well as updated COVID-19 guidance, visit the CDC website.
For additional questions about COVID-19 at-home testing coverage, visit uhc.com.
Optum’s direct-to-consumer eCommerce platform provides consumers with access to over-the-counter products, prescription medications, virtual care and diagnostics including COVID-19 at home tests. For more information, visit the Optum store.
The Federal government has launched a national website where each household can receive free OTC at-home COVID-19 tests shipped directly from covidtests.gov. For more information on this program go to covidtests.gov.