A Closer Look at COVID-19 Testing
As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Michigan, testing is more important than ever. Lydia Watson, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer at MidMichigan Health, helps to answer some common questions on the types of COVID-19 testing available and who is right for what test.
Q: What type of testing is available for COVID-19?
A: Currently, there are three tests available for coronavirus, including the PCR, Antigen and antibody tests. The PCR test detects genetic material of the virus using a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This test generally involves a standard nasopharyngeal swab testing to determine if you have an active COVID-19 infection. Results may be available in minutes if analyzed onsite (a rapid test) or a few days if sent to an outside lab.
An antigen test, conducted through a nasal or throat swab, detects certain proteins in the virus. Test results are typically available in minutes. With the rapidness of the test, there is increased likelihood of false-negative results. As a result, the health care provider may suggest a PCR test to confirm a negative result.
Antibody testing is not used to diagnose whether you currently have COVID-19. This test result may show whether a person has been previously infected with the virus more than two weeks previous. It is important for people to be aware that all tests, including the COVID-19 antibody test, can produce negative results that are incorrect (i.e., false negative results). For example, it has been found that a negative result may occur if you have an antibody test too soon after an active COVID-19 virus infection.
Q. What does a positive COVID-19 test result mean?
A. If your test was positive, this means that the test did detect the presence of COVID-19 in your nasal secretions and you are currently infected with COVID-19. If you had a positive test, you can spread the virus to others. Please self-isolate at home until you have recovered from your illness.
Based on the latest updates from the CDC recovery is defined as one day with no fever and symptoms improved, and 10 days since symptoms first appeared. For some special populations at highest risk, such as those with suppressed immune systems, a 20 day recovery period is recommended. Most importantly, if there are others in your home that does not have COVID-19, it’s important to separate yourself from them in a different area or room of your home. Social distancing, hand hygiene, and universal masking still remain some of the best measures to reduce the spread of infection.
Q. What does a negative COVID-19 test result mean?
A. If your test was negative, this means the presence of COVID-19 was not detected in your nasal secretions and you are not currently infected with COVID-19. If you have a negative test but continue to have increasing symptoms, it’s possible the day of your first test was at a stage where the virus still wasn’t detectable. Contact your provider further advice. Even if you have had a negative COVID-19 test, you should still follow the guidelines of wearing a face mask in public, following social distancing and practicing frequent hand hygiene as you did prior to the test.
Q: Why not test anyone who wants one?
A: The State of Michigan follows U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidance for prioritization of testing. This prioritization criteria identifies those individuals with the greatest risk of becoming very sick or spreading the illness to others such as first responders and health care workers.
In an effort to increase testing access to as many Michiganders as feasible, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services expanded their COVID-19 testing prioritization criteria in June to include both symptomatic and asymptomatic persons.
At MidMichigan Health, our internal testing supplies and prioritization criteria are continually monitored by our system COVID-19 testing taskforce and adjustments are made based on supply availability. At this time, due to testing supply limitations, MidMichigan is currently only able to test the following:
- Those persons who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
- persons without symptoms, with a known exposure to COVID-19 (<6 feet away for >15 minutes), who are prioritized by the health department or our own MidMichigan employee health department.
- patients being admitted to one of our MidMichigan Medical Centers.
- persons who are scheduled for surgical procedures as deemed necessary by our health system.
MidMichigan's goal is to increase our testing capabilities to include asymptomatic persons in the near future.
Q: Who determines if someone is tested for COVID-19?
A: Not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19. However, we recommend you call your provider if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or if you have been in close contact (within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes) with someone with confirmed COVID-19.
Q: What can I expect a COVID-19 test to be like?
A: COVID-19 testing generally involves a standard nasopharyngeal swab testing (molecular PCR test) to determine if you have an active COVID-19 infection. This is different from COVID-19 antibody testing, which is done through a blood sample.
A nasopharyngeal swab test involves the patient leaning their head back so that a health care provider can gently put a long cotton swab in the back of the nose to get a sample from a specific place in the back of your nose. You may feel slight temporary discomfort and experience tears in your eyes momentarily during the swab test. Most patients do not describe the test as painful, but many do describe some temporary discomfort.
As a service to the community, MidMichigan Health hosts a COVID-19 informational hotline with a reminder of CDC guidelines and recommendations. Staff is also available to help answer community questions Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The hotline can be reached toll-free at (800) 445-7356 or (989) 794-7600. Inquiries can also be sent to MidMichigan Health via Facebook messenger at www.facebook.com/midmichigan.
Those interested in a current list of COVID-19 testing site locations may visit www.michigan.gov/coronavirustest.