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COVID-19 testing accuracy – when you test matters

As the pandemic continues with the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant, it’s likely that you or someone you love has been exposed and had to go through the process of testing. With schools back in session, workplaces adopting travel policies and entertainment venues requiring verification for entry, testing is happening more often.

When you get the notification that you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, your first reaction is often to see how immediately you can schedule a test. However, in order to get the most accurate results, it’s important to test within the right time frame of your exposure or symptom onset. 

“When done too early, COVID-19 testing can result in a false-negative,” says Dr. Jennifer Womack, an internal medicine specialist at Tryon Medical Partners Uptown.  “The virus, if present in your body, is still in the process of multiplying and may not be at high enough numbers to show on a test yet.” 

Dr. Womack has worked extensively with Tryon’s COVID-19 testing sites for patients and with their efforts to help workplaces with employee testing. She suggests knowing your best day to test for the most accurate results based on the scenarios below. Remember, no matter your scenario, it’s important to stay home and mask up while waiting for the result of your test.


Symptomatic

Vaccinated or unvaccinated, tests are the most sensitive after 72 hours of symptoms. If you have tested earlier than 72 hours after symptoms began and received a negative result, stay home, mask up and complete another test after three days of symptoms. 

“Remember when we thought COVID-19 always presented with fever, cough and difficulty breathing? That is not the case anymore and it can be much more challenging to identify cases of COVID since vaccinated persons frequently have milder symptoms that are often attributed to “summer colds” or “sinus infections,” Dr. Womack says.

Symptoms of COVID-19, particularly the Delta variant, include any or all of the following: 

  • Runny nose
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Chest or sinus congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Swollen glands
  • Fevers, chills or body aches
  • Unusual headaches
  • Exhaustion
  • Diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • More rarely, a diffuse body rash or conjunctivitis (pink eye)

Vaccinated and exposed to a sick person

Wear a mask everywhere you go and around everyone you see and get tested three to five days after the exposure. Once the test is negative, return to usual activity.


Unvaccinated and exposed to a sick person

Quarantine at home and test immediately. If the test is negative, continue to quarantine and test again after five to seven days. If you are not vaccinated, even if you have a negative test, the recommendation is to continue the quarantine for 10 to 14 days after the exposure since the virus has a long incubation period. 


Traveled or attended a crowded event

If you’ve recently attended a crowded event like a wedding or concert or have returned from a trip, especially if you’ve gone through an airport, test for COVID-19 five days after your last day of exposure. This recommendation stands for those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, as does masking up around others as you await your result.


Living with a sick person

Household members of sick persons should be tested as soon as they know they have been exposed. 

“Because the Delta variant is so incredibly contagious, the likelihood of getting sick while being in a house with a sick person is very high,” Dr. Womack says. “Even if you have a negative test initially, I recommend continuing to minimize your exposure outside the home and testing once or twice more over the 10-14 day quarantine of your family member.  Talk to your doctor about the timing of testing in this situation.”


Quarantining

If you have a positive test, quarantine is 10 days at a minimum. Day one is considered the first day you have symptoms. Make sure your symptoms are consistently improving and that you have no fever for one to two days before ending the quarantine on day 11. If you are continuing to have symptoms after the initial 10 days, extend your quarantine until you have had consistent improvement for one to two days.

No matter your scenario, it’s important to know the best time to test for the most accurate results. This keeps you, your loved ones and the community safer from the spread of COVID-19. Find a testing site near you and consult the physicians you trust to stay well and informed during this pandemic.