COVID-19 testing, like the COVID-19 virus itself, has been evolving since March of 2020. Laboratories and their respective teams have been working to stave off the virus with every new variant that comes about. Through many rigorous tests and studies, it has been proven that it not only matters that you get tested but when. The time frame for testing is an important part of the testing process. In any case, the CDC recommends getting a test 5-7 days after exposure, and even wearing a mask for 14 days after exposure, or at least until you get a negative result.
A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is a molecular COVID-19 test that aims to collect genetic material from an organism—in this case, the virus. If you have the virus at the time when you take the test, the PCR test will be able to detect any presence of COVID-19. A PCR test has three stages in its process:
Not everyone goes out and gets the same COVID-19 test. You probably know at least three people who have gotten a different kind of test than you! The two major types of tests for detecting COVID-19 are PCR tests and antigen (commonly called rapid) tests. One might instinctively ask which one is better, or which test they should get? While the PCR test is the most accurate test, it does not rule out the benefit of using an antigen test that has its own unique benefits.
The main difference between the two is actually what part of the virus they are detecting. We described in the previous section the process of a PCR, so we won’t go into exhaustive detail here, but there are some downsides to a COVID-19 PCR test that we would like to share. The PCR test is so specialized that it can only be done in a laboratory, with skilled technicians, and requires special equipment to perform tasks. Due to this extensive process, it can take anywhere from 12 hours to five days to get a result back. A PCR test is also quite expensive, coming in at around $100 or more per test. Although, in many cases, testing is free to the patient. The PCR test does have the benefit of greater accuracy, which should always be on the top of your list for things to consider when deciding which test to get.
An antigen or rapid test, on the other hand, is much faster at getting test results but at the cost of accuracy. Antigens are substances that cause the body to produce an immune response; therefore, this type of test uses lab-made antigens to find any COVID-19 antigens in your system. The advantages of a rapid antigen test compared to a PCR test is that they are so easy to use and interpret that they can be done at home! You are also able to see results within 20 minutes. Finally, the price. These tests are fairly inexpensive, costing around $15 per test. Again, the PCR is considered the “gold standard” for testing and should be the priority test to get if possible.
With testing evolving and becoming more accurate as time goes on, many people enjoy the comfort and safety of being able to take a COVID-19 test at home. Any COVID-19 test that you perform at home will be an antigen test, and as we discussed in the previous section, these types of tests are not the most accurate available. It is also more likely that your insurance will cover all or some of the cost of a test at a doctor’s office or pharmacy, but less likely they will do the same for an at-home test. Home tests are a great option if you need an immediate test result, but if you are looking for the most accurate results, getting a molecular (PCR) test would be a better choice.
In short, yes. If you want to stay as safe as possible and protect yourself and those around you at the same time, you should get tested after coming in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, no matter your vaccination status. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, you should stay home and isolate yourself from others. If your test then happens to come back positive, you should isolate yourself at home for 10 days after you experience symptoms.
For someone who has not been vaccinated, there is a much higher chance that they will contract the virus as most people who get Covid today are unvaccinated. So those who are unvaccinated and have come in close contact with someone who has Covid should immediately go and get tested. If the test result comes back negative, it is recommended that they get tested again in 5-7 days. For those who have one of the vaccines, if they have come in contact with someone who has Covid, they should also be tested within 5-7 days of their last exposure for the most accurate results. Regardless of vaccination status, it is recommended that you get tested if you are experiencing any symptoms of Covid.
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