When the pandemic first hit the United States, among the most challenging issues was the shortage of testing kits for the coronavirus. Such was the shortage that clinics and hospitals were forced to narrow down the eligible people to three categories: first, those who traveled to countries with a coronavirus outbreak; second, those who were exposed to positive cases; and third, those who showed symptoms of COVID-19.
In recent months, however, access to the testing kits has significantly improved that it’s possible to get tested even without meeting any of the abovementioned criteria. This brings us to the question: Should you get tested for COVID-19 just because you can get it?
It’s a little complicated. We have to clarify one thing: We aren’t talking about antigen and antibody tests since these are different, not to mention that these aren’t COVID-19 tests. Instead, we’re talking about the PCR test, the definitive diagnostic test for the disease.
Going back to the question: Of course, you can get tested, is that’s what you want. But keep in mind that the PCR test isn’t perfect, and its results have their limitations.
If You Test Positive for COVID-19
Let’s assume that your test results came back positive. Your physician will decide whether to recommend self-isolation at home or admission at the hospital. You may be instructed to self-isolate at home if you aren’t showing symptoms. You may also be instructed to consider in-patient admission in case you’re showing symptoms.
If you’re asymptomatic, your positive result can mean that you were tested just in time. You’re infected with the coronavirus except that you’re not showing symptoms of it. But you may also be pre-symptomatic meaning that you may develop symptoms, such as fever, sore throat and cough, in the coming days.
You may, however, end your self-isolation at home if you don’t develop symptoms 10 days after your test.
There’s also the possibility that you were sick a few weeks earlier – before you were tested – but your results came back positive. You may have fully recovered from the coronavirus and, more importantly, you aren’t infectious anymore.
This is because the PCR test can also show a positive result even after weeks after recovery. The test may be detecting the coronavirus’ RNA, thus, the positive result.
If You Test Negative for COVID-19
Now let’s assume that your test results came back positive. You breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps do a little jig of happiness. You’re hoping perhaps that now you can do most of your daily activities without anxiety, such as visiting an elderly relative.
But stop right there! According to Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, a negative result isn’t a ticket to carelessness.
She adds, “We don’t know how good these tests are in individuals who don’t have symptoms.” Health experts know that the PCR test is quite effective in detecting COVID-19 in people with symptoms. But they don’t have an “idea what a negative test means” in asymptomatic individuals.
Dr. Landon furthermore says, “We are certain that there are people who test negative even though they are definitely contagious.” While a positive test may mean the person is shedding COVID-19, a negative result doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite. The negative result may be because the person was either tested too early or the swab test wasn’t able to detect the infection.
There’s also the matter of false-positive and false-negative results. Some people actually test positive in the first test, then negative in the second swab and, frustratingly, get positive results again. It can also take between three and five days after exposure to an infected person to get a positive test result.
The bottom line: You shouldn’t be complacent about getting a negative result! You should take all the recommended precautions, such as wearing a mask in public places and washing your hands regularly. You can’t be too careful with more than 100,000 deaths, and counting, in the United States.
So, should you get tested just because you want to or because you can? Robert Hecht, a professor of clinical epidemiology at Yale University, approves of it. He says that people being concerned about their health status and people recognizing that it’s possible to be infected yet be asymptomatic are good things.
Again, be cautious and careful about your actions as these affect the health of your family and friends, even the stranger down the street!
We are no expert; consult with your physician before you take the next steps.