When the pandemic began, we all learned about this “novel coronavirus,” meaning a brand new strain. Since then, we’ve dropped “novel” out of the conversation and are all far too familiar with COVID-19. The pandemic certainly doesn’t feel new anymore.
Many people don’t know about the nuances of COVID-19 testing until the panicked moment when they realize they or someone they love needs one. To arm ourselves with this information, we asked Dr. Jennifer Womack to share her extensive coronavirus testing knowledge. An internal medicine physician at Tryon Medical Partners, Dr. Womack typically serves their Uptown office, but during the pandemic, she has administered countless COVID-19 tests at Tryon’s satellite locations.
We posed a few of the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19 testing to Dr. Womack:
If I notice symptoms that might be COVID-19, what do I do?
First things first – quarantine. Once you have quarantined, the ideal time to be tested is when you have been symptomatic for three days. Your first instinct may be to get tested as quickly as possible, but this risks the accuracy of the test.
“When your sample is taken to the lab, they use a process called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to detect the presence of the virus’ genetic material,” explains Dr. Womack. “Getting a good sample is key to an accurate outcome.”
Getting that good sample means enough time has lapsed for your body to develop copies of the virus’ genetic material. Otherwise, your test may return a false negative.
What if I don’t have any symptoms but have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19?
For all the same reasons discussed above, Womack recommends those who have been exposed to COVID-19 but are asymptomatic wait four to seven days after that exposure occurred before being tested. Of course, the first thing to do in this case is also to quarantine immediately.
Why do some test results take longer than others?
There are two kinds of tests that are used most often – the anterior nasal test and the nasopharyngeal swab.
The nasopharyngeal test is the one used most often by Tryon Medical Partners. Because this test is extremely sensitive, it delivers very accurate results in 36 to 48 hours. The nasopharyngeal swab looks like a thin pipe cleaner that is inserted in the nasal cavity, gathering potential virus genetic material from the back of the nasal cavity.
Many express concern about this test being painful, but Dr. Womack asserts that’s not the case and shouldn’t dissuade anyone from getting the nasopharyngeal test, especially considering how accurate it is compared to some other options.
“When performed by a skilled administrator, the test should not be painful and should feel as though you have gotten water up your nose,” Dr. Womack says.
The other nasal test is the anterior nasal test you see at most chain pharmacies. They involve inserting a cotton swab half an inch into both sides of your nose, into your nasal cavities. These swabs may be rapid tests, returning results in ten minutes, or are sent off to a lab, with results returned anywhere from one to three days.
“If you receive a negative result with this more rapid but less sensitive test, the manufacturer recommends that the test be followed-up with a send-off test that is more sensitive to be sure the rapid result isn’t a false negative,” says Dr. Womack.
I’ve heard there are now saliva tests available. How do those work?
“There are four main places we can look in your body for the DNA we know to be in the coronavirus molecule,” says Dr. Womack. “The front of your nose, the back of your nose, your throat, or in your saliva.”
Salivary tests are performed by chewing on a cotton ball. Similar to the nasopharyngeal test, the sample is sent to a lab and results are returned in just over one day. Most insurance companies do not currently cover use of the saliva tests, so they are used less frequently.
Tryon Medical Partners uses the saliva method to routinely perform proactive COVID-19 testing of its nearly 500-person team to ensure its offices are optimized for patient safety. These proactive measures insure patients can prioritize their wellness and schedule needed appointments to stay healthy.
How do I know what test I should use?
With all these options for testing, it’s important not to feel overwhelmed. Your healthcare provider will take all the factors of your unique situation into consideration and recommend the best next steps. Before testing, schedule a virtual visit or Virtual Urgent Care appointment or call Tryon at 704.495.6334.
“Rely on your trusted physician if you’re uncertain,” Dr. Womack says. “We’re here to pass on all the information we know to you.”
Dr. Womack stresses that this includes reaching out about COVID-19, but also any other health needs you have at this time.
“Many of my patients have had increased responsibilities during the pandemic,” she says, “resulting in a significant increase in associated symptoms of stress and anxiety. Whatever your need might be, don’t hesitate to schedule time with your doctor.”