COVID-19 Testing

Who should get tested for COVID-19 

  • People who have symptoms of COVID-19,
  • People who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19
  • People who have taken part in activities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 because they cannot physically distance as needed, such as travel, attending large social or mass gatherings, or being in crowded indoor settings, and
  • People who have been asked or referred to get testing by their healthcare provider or the health department.

If you have symptoms, use Virginia’s COVIDCHECK to help make decisions on when to seek testing and appropriate medical care. Call 9-1-1 or seek emergency medical care immediately if you are having trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or bluish lips or face.

How to get tested

Types of Tests for COVID-19

There are two main types of tests for COVID-19: viral tests (e.g., PCR or antigen) and antibody tests.

A viral test tells you if you have a current infection by looking for parts of the virus itself. Swabs that take samples from the back of the nose, mouth, or throat, or spit, are used for these tests. There are currently two main types of viral tests that detect the virus that causes COVID-19: molecular tests (e.g., PCR tests) that look for the virus’s genetic material and antigen tests that look for a specific protein on the surface of the virus. Antigen tests can be easy to run and affordable, but are not always as accurate as molecular tests. At-home testing and collection allow you to collect a specimen at home and either send it to a laboratory for testing or perform the testing at home. Contact your healthcare provider to see if an at-home specimen collection kit or an at-home test is appropriate for you and available in your area. 

An antibody test tells you if you had a past infection by looking for antibodies in the blood. Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system when a germ enters a person’s body. Our immune systems help us fight off germs and diseases. The test uses a blood sample to look for antibodies made in response to SARS-CoV-2 rather than looking for the virus itself. It usually takes 1-3 weeks for the body to make antibodies in response to an infection. We do not know how much protection the antibodies might provide or how long this protection might last. 

Antibody tests have limited ability to diagnose COVID-19 and should not be used alone to diagnose COVID-19. Results from these tests should also not be used to make decisions about staffing or the ability of an employee to return to work, the need for available personal protective equipment (PPE), or the need to discontinue preventive measures, like social distancing. 

Find more answers to your testing questions at VDH FAQs on Testing. This VDH infographic is a resource for patients about what to expect when they have a specimen taken with a nasopharyngeal (NP) swab as part of a COVID-19 test. This VDH table displays a comparison chart of frequently asked questions about PCR, antigen, and antibody tests.

How to get tested?

Testing may be available at your healthcare provider’s office, urgent care center, pharmacy, or other healthcare clinic. Some testing sites in Virginia are offering community testing events, such as drive-thru testing. Contact your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19 and want to be tested. 

To find testing sites in your area, visit the website Virginia COVID-19 Testing Sites. This website is updated frequently. Each testing site has different policies and procedures for testing and billing. Please reach out to the individual site for information about testing availability.

If you cannot get to a testing location, you and your healthcare provider might also consider either an at-home collection kit or an at-home test. Contact your healthcare provider to see if an at-home specimen collection kit or an at-home test is appropriate for you and available in your area. Some of these tests require a prescription from your healthcare provider, and some require a health assessment and a laboratory order. For more information on at-home testing, visit the CDC website At-Home Testing.

How much does testing cost?

As of March 18, many insurance plans cover the cost of testing and other related health care costs. For specific information about your health insurance coverage, call your insurance company. You can usually find their phone number on your insurance card. Most insurance companies cover testing cost without a co-pay. You will also find information about insurance and COVID-19 testing costs here. Some testing sites might have additional fees that aren’t covered by insurance, so it is a good practice to ask about all costs before getting tested.

Uninsured or under-insured people in Virginia with COVID-19 symptoms can get tested through the state public health lab for free. Please contact a free clinic, federally qualified health center (FQHC), or emergency department to have the specimen collected, or visit www.coverVA.org to see if you qualify for Medicaid. Your local health department might also be able to connect you with free clinics or FQHCs in your area.

What to do after while you are waiting for your test result?

While waiting for your COVID-19 test results, stay home and away from others if:

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19; or
  • If you live with someone with COVID-19; or
  • If you have had close contact with someone with COVID-19; or
  • You were advised by a healthcare provider or a public health official to stay home.

If you do not have COVID-19 symptoms, but live with someone with COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone with COVID-19, monitor your health. 

Think about the people you have recently been around so you can prepare to notify your contacts if your test is positive. You can use a helpful VDH tool: Notify Your Contacts to remember everyone you have been around. If your test is positive and the health department calls you, answer the call. 

Call 9-1-1 or seek emergency medical care immediately if you are having trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or bluish lips or face.

What do your test results mean?

Viral Test 

If you test positive for COVID-19 on a viral test, you have COVID-19 and need to stay home and separate yourself from others (isolate). 

Learn more about steps you can take to protect other people while you stay home and when it is safe to be around others. It is generally not recommended to get tested again within 90 days of your first positive test result.

If you test negative for COVID-19 on a viral test, you were probably not infected at the time your sample was taken. 

It is possible you were very early in your infection when you were tested and you could test positive later, or you could get COVID-19 later and then get sick. Even though the viral test is negative, you should still take steps to keep yourself and others from getting COVID-19. Learn more by reading VDH’s Prevention Tips.

If you are a close contact of someone with COVID-19 and test negative for COVID-19 without symptoms, VDH and CDC still recommend a full 14-day quarantine period as the safest option. If you cannot stay home (quarantine) for the full 14 days after exposure and do not have symptoms, you may leave home (end quarantine) earlier. Counting the date of last exposure as Day 0, you may leave home after Day 10 without testing, or after Day 7 with a negative PCR or antigen test performed on or after Day 5. If you do not stay home for the recommended 14 days, you should continue monitoring for symptoms and follow all other recommendations (e.g., wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash hands often) for the full 14-day period after the last exposure. 

For at-home testing, if your test shows invalid or error, your test did not work properly. If your test shows an invalid result or test error, please refer to the instructions for use in the package insert and contact the manufacturer for assistance.

For more information about viral tests: 

About Cycle Threshold (Ct) Values in PCR tests

The PCR test looks to see if the genetic material, specifically RNA, of the COVID-19 virus is present in the person’s sample. The method makes numerous copies of the RNA after a series of repeated temperature manipulations, or cycles. Please note, this amplification process does not produce infectious virus. If COVID-19 virus RNA is present in the sample, the amount of the virus will significantly increase after each cycle of the test.

Ct stands for “Cycle Threshold.” Ct is a number generated during a PCR test. It refers to the number of cycles needed for the genetic material in a sample to grow and cross a cutoff point (threshold) where it changes from negative (not detectable) to positive (detectable). 

It is important to know that Ct values and cutoffs differ by test and they cannot be compared from one test to another. Some PCR tests do not use Ct values but use a different value instead to report the test being positive or negative. Also, PCR positive results and Ct values cannot determine how contagious someone is. Public health needs more data and methods to know how much virus is needed in a collection sample to infect someone else. We also do not know the cutoff point in which the amount of virus is too small to infect others, and also the amount of virus in the body changes drastically over the course of the infection.

For more information on Ct values, refer to the CDC Lab FAQs for Interpreting Results of Diagnostic Tests and the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) resource: ‘Ct Values: What They Are and How They Can be Used.’

When is it Safe to be Around Others 

If you are sick or have a positive COVID-19 viral test, retesting for COVID-19 is not recommended for 90 days after the first positive viral test. You may be around others after these three things have happened:

  1. At least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared, and
  2. At least 24 hours with no fever without fever-reducing medication, and
  3. Other symptoms have improved.

VDH does not recommend that employers require test results or a healthcare provider’s note to excuse them from work, qualify for sick leave, or allow return to work. Healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner.

See the VDH When to End Home Isolation and Quarantine Infographic for more information.

Antibody Test

If you test positive on an antibody test, you may have been infected in the past with the virus that causes COVID-19. Your healthcare provider will work with you to determine how best to care for you based on the test results, along with other factors of your medical history, such as your symptoms, possible exposures, and places where you have recently traveled. There is also the chance that this test can give a positive result that is wrong (a false positive result).

If you test negative on an antibody test, that means antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 were not found in your blood. However, it is possible for this test to give a negative result that is wrong (false negative). A negative result may occur if you were tested early in your illness, and your body hasn’t had enough time to produce antibodies. This means that you could possibly still have COVID-19 even though the test is negative. If this is the case, your healthcare provider will consider the test result together with all other parts of your medical history, such as symptoms, possible exposures, and places where you have recently traveled, in deciding how to care for you. It is important that you work with your healthcare provider to help understand the next steps you should take.

Regardless of whether you test positive or negative on an antibody test, the results do not confirm whether you are able to spread the virus that causes COVID-19. Confirmed and suspected cases of reinfection of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been reported, but remain rare. Until we know more, continue to take steps to protect yourself and others.

Watch this CDC video to learn more about Antibody Tests for COVID-19.

New COVID-19 Variant Strains

Viruses constantly mutate, or change, and new strains of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new strains (variant strains) appear and then disappear. Other times, new strains appear and continue over time. Multiple strains of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the U.S. and globally during this pandemic. 

The new COVID-19 strains that have appeared in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and South Africa seem to spread more easily and quickly than other strains. At this time, there is no evidence that the new strains found in the U.K., South Africa, and Nigeria cause more severe illness or increased risk of death.

VDH continues to work with laboratory partners and the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) to study new COVID-19 strains and ensure the new strains are detected with the available tests. Most PCR tests will still detect the virus, even if there is a mutation. 

For more information, see CDC’s New COVID-19 Variants and Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants. 

Page Last Updated: January 8, 2021