COVID-19 Testing

Who should get tested for COVID-19

These people should get tested:

  • People with symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status
  • 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 attending large gatherings or being in crowded settings
  • People who are planning to travel or who have recently returned from travel with some exceptions for fully vaccinated people
  • People who are planning to visit people at high risk of developing severe COVID-19
  • People who have been asked or referred to get testing by their healthcare provider or the health department
  • People without symptoms of COVID-19 who have no known exposures to COVID-19 but wish to help public health officials understand how many people are infected (surveillance testing)

Call 9-1-1 right away if you are having a medical emergency. 

If there is a known exposure, you should be tested immediately. If the test is negative, you should be retested 5-7 days after last exposure or immediately if symptoms develop. If testing is not readily available for all close contacts, tests might be prioritized for symptomatic close contacts or those at increased risk for severe COVID-19.

If you have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 3 months and recovered, or if you have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, you do not have to get tested again (even after close contact with someone with COVID-19) as long as you do not develop new symptoms and do not live or work in a congregate setting, healthcare facility, or high-density workplace. If you live or work in one of these places, you may still need to get tested after an exposure even if you are fully vaccinated but you may not have to participate in routine screening testing programs.

  • Fully vaccinated means 2 weeks or more have passed since getting the second dose of a two-dose vaccine, or 2 weeks or more have passed since getting 1 dose of a single-dose vaccine. If you have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, you may NOT be fully protected even if you are fully vaccinated. Talk to your healthcare provider. Even after vaccination, you may need to continue taking all precautions.

Types of Tests for COVID-19

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

A viral test tells you if you have a current infection by looking for parts of the virus. Swabs that take samples from the nose or throat, or saliva, are used for these tests. Currently, there are two main viral tests used to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes COVID-19): 

  • Molecular tests (also called PCR tests) that look for the virus’s genetic material, and
  • Antigen tests that look for a specific protein that is part of the virus. 

Antigen tests can be easy to run and may cost less than molecular tests, but are not always as accurate as molecular tests. 

At-home testing and collection allow you to collect a specimen or sample 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 right for you and available in your area. For more information on at-home testing, visit VDH’s table on COVID-19 at-home tests here.

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 the virus that causes COVID-19. It usually takes 1-3 weeks for people to make antibodies in response to an infection.

Antibody tests have limited ability to diagnose COVID-19, and should not be used alone for this purpose. 

Results from these antibody 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 wearing a mask or physical distancing. 

For more answers to your testing questions, read VDH’s general FAQs for 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 a healthcare provider’s office, urgent care center, pharmacy, other healthcare clinic, or community testing events. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone known to have COVID-19, you should get tested. You can contact your healthcare provider to find out how to get tested, or you can obtain this information on your own. To find testing sites in your area, visit the website Virginia COVID-19 Testing Sites. Each testing site has different policies and procedures for testing and billing. Please reach out to the specific site for more information.

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 one of these is right for you and available in your area. Some tests require a prescription from a 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?

Many health insurance plans cover the cost of testing and other related health care costs. For specific information, call your insurance company. You can usually find their phone number on your insurance card. Most insurance companies cover testing costs 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 idea to ask about all costs before getting tested.

There are various means to obtain testing at no cost. These include community testing events hosted by health departments and testing through a free clinic or federally qualified health center (FQHC) and a growing network of participating pharmacies.  To find free testing, visit VDH’s COVID-19 Testing Sites to find a testing location in Virginia, enter your zip code, and select the option for “Free Testing Available.”  To find community testing events that offer free testing, visit the same page (VDH’s COVID-19 Testing Sites to find a testing location in Virginia, scroll down the page to find the “Upcoming Testing Events.”  

Visit www.coverVA.org to see if you qualify for Medicaid or visit www.healthcare.gov to see if you can obtain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Your local health department might also be able to connect you with free clinics or FQHCs in your area.

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

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

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of your vaccination status; or
  • You live with someone with COVID-19; or
  • You have had close contact with someone with COVID-19; or
  • You were told by a healthcare provider or a public health official to stay home.

Think about the people you have recently been around so you can prepare to tell them 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, please answer the call. 

Call 9-1-1 or seek emergency medical care right away if you are having trouble breathing, pain or pressure in the chest that won’t go away, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds, depending on skin tone.

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 away from others (isolate). Being vaccinated for COVID-19 will not make your COVID-19 viral test positive. If you are vaccinated and have a positive viral test, you need to stay home and away from others (isolate). 

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. If there is a known exposure and your first test is negative, you should be retested 5-7 days after your last exposure or immediately if you develop symptoms. If testing is not readily available for all close contacts, tests might be prioritized for symptomatic close contacts or those at increased risk for severe COVID-19. 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.

Depending on your circumstances, it is also possible that a second viral test might be recommended to confirm the positive or negative result of the first viral test. The healthcare provider can explain this in more detail.

If you are a close contact of someone with COVID-19, test negative for COVID-19, and you don’t have 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 full 14 days, you should still monitor for symptoms and follow all other recommendations, (e.g., wear a mask, watch your distance, avoid crowds, and wash hands often) for the full 14-day period after the last exposure. 

If you have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 3 months you do not need to stay home (quarantine) after close contact of someone with COVID-19, but you should still watch for symptoms for 14 days and continue to wear a mask, watch your distance, avoid crowds, and wash your hands.

If you live or work in one of these places, you should get tested after an exposure even if you are fully vaccinated. This is because people in these settings may face high turnover of residents, a higher risk of increased spread, and challenges in maintaining recommended physical distancing.

If you have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, you do not need to get tested before or after travel in the United States or stay home (quarantine) after U.S. travel unless your destination requires it. All people who travel internationally should pay close attention to the situation at your international destination before travel and should get tested 3-5 days after international travel. You still need to show a negative test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding a flight to the United States. If you have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, you do not need to stay home (quarantine) after international travel. 

*It is very important that people who are not required to stay home (quarantine) monitor their health for 14 days after their last exposure and continue following all recommendations (e.g., wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet away from others, avoid crowds, and wash hands often). See exceptions to masking and physical distancing for fully vaccinated people here

Healthcare personnel (HCP) who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 do not need to stay home (quarantine) after a workplace or community-associated exposure or be restricted from work as long as they do not have any symptoms and do not have underlying immunocompromising conditions (e.g., organ transplantation, cancer treatment). HCP should continue to follow all travel recommendations. For additional details, see here

Fully vaccinated inpatients and residents of healthcare facilities should continue to follow quarantine recommendations after close contact with someone with COVID-19. Healthcare settings include hospitals and long-term care facilities (e.g., nursing homes, assisted living facilities). 

People with weakened immune systems who have been fully vaccinated should talk with their healthcare provider about whether staying home (quarantining) after close contact exposure is recommended. 

These recommendations are based on what we know about COVID-19 vaccines and protection provided by previous infection at this time and apply to COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized for emergency use by FDA (such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson Janssen) and the World Health Organization (WHO) (such as AstraZeneca/Oxford). CDC and other scientists continue to research the ability of COVID-19 vaccines to prevent transmission of the virus, but this process takes time. As we learn more, changes could be made to these recommendations.

For at-home testing, if your test result is invalid or indicates an error, your test did not work properly. You should refer to the test’s instructions in the package insert and contact the manufacturer for help.

For more information about viral tests: 

About Cycle Threshold (Ct) Values in PCR tests

Ct stands for “Cycle threshold.” It refers to the number of cycles needed for the genetic material in a test sample to grow. Different test manufacturers use different numbers and methods in determining Cts so you cannot compare your test results with other people. You cannot use this information to decide how sick or infectious someone is. For more information about Ct values and how they are used, please visit 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 diagnosed with COVID-19 and have COVID-19 symptoms, 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.

If you are diagnosed with COVID-19 based on a positive viral test but never had symptoms, you may be around others when at least 10 days have passed since your first positive test. 

VDH does not recommend that employers require test results or a healthcare provider’s note to excuse employees from work, qualify for sick leave, or allow return to work. Healthcare providers and medical offices may be very busy and not able to give you this information in a timely manner.

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

If you are diagnosed with COVID-19 and recover, retesting for COVID-19 is not recommended for 3 months after the first positive viral test, but retesting can be considered if there is no alternate diagnosis. If you are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, you do not have to stay home (quarantine) (even after close contact with someone with COVID-19)  as long as you do not develop symptoms but should still get tested if you live or work in a non-healthcare congregate setting (e.g., group home or correctional or detention facility), dormitory (or similar high-density housing settings) at educational institutions, healthcare facility (e.g., hospital or long-term care facility or nursing home), or crowded workplace (e.g., poultry processing plant). If you live or work in one of these places, you may still need to get tested after an exposure even if you are fully vaccinated. Employees should continue to follow workplace testing procedures if in place but may not have to participate in routine screening testing programs if they have no symptoms or known exposures. If you are not required to quarantine (stay home) after exposure to someone with COVID-19, you  should still watch for symptoms for 14 days and continue to wear a mask, watch your distance, avoid crowds, and wash your hands. See exceptions to masking and physical distancing for fully vaccinated people here. For additional information, see CDC’s recommendations here and more information from VDH here.

Antibody Test

If you test positive on an antibody test, you might 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 result, along with other factors of your medical history, such as your symptoms, possible exposures, and places where you recently traveled. There is also the chance that this test can give a positive result that is wrong (a false positive result). You could also have a positive antibody test if you have been vaccinated for COVID-19. 

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 (a false negative result). 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 might have had COVID-19 even though the test is negative. If this is the case, your healthcare provider will consider the test result together with other parts of your medical history, such as symptoms, possible exposures, and places where you 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 result does not confirm whether you are able to spread the virus that causes COVID-19, or whether you are fully protected against COVID-19. Confirmed and suspected cases of reinfection with the virus that causes COVID-19 have been reported, but are rare. Until we know more, you should 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 Variants

Viruses mutate, or change, all the time and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new strains (known as “variant strains” or “variants”) appear and then disappear. Other times, new variants appear and continue over time. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented around the world and in the United States during this pandemic. 

The COVID-19 variants that first appeared in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and South Africa seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. Scientists are investigating whether these variants cause more severe illness than others. Findings from U.K. scientists suggest that the variant first identified in the U.K. is associated with an increased risk of death. 

The variant first identified in the U.K. (B.1.1.7) has been found in many U.S. states or jurisdictions, including Virginia. The variant first identified in South Africa (B.1.351) has also been found in many U.S. states or jurisdictions, including Virginia. The variant first identified in travelers from Brazil (P.1) has also been found in many U.S. states or jurisdictions, including Virginia. The variant strains that first emerged in California (B.1.427 and B.1.429) have been identified in many other U.S. states or jurisdictions, including Virginia. VDH continues to work with laboratory partners to study new viral variant strains and ensure the new variants are detected with the available tests. Most PCR tests will still detect the virus, even if there is a mutation. 

With the threat of these new strains spreading, it is important now more than ever to wear a mask correctly, stay at least six feet from others, avoid crowds, wash your hands often, and get vaccinated for COVID-19. These public health recommendations for stopping the spread of COVID-19 will work for all COVID-19 variants. The best way to stop variant strains from developing in the first place is to stop the spread of the virus.

For the latest information, see VDH’s Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19 and CDC’s About Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19 and Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants. To see where these variants are being identified in Virginia, visit VDH’s Variants of Concern Dashboard. To see how commonly variants are being identified in the U.S. and where these variants are being identified, visit CDC’s COVID Data Tracker.

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Page Last Updated: May 5, 2021