The State of COVID-19 Testing
Testing is critical to controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Testing is the only way to be sure you are not passing the virus on to others — even people who are vaccinated can carry the virus while showing few to no symptoms.
Testing also provides important information about the virus’s movement within and between communities. Public health officials need to know how many people are infected and where they live so that the officials can track outbreaks and react accordingly.
At the beginning of the pandemic, NIH moved quickly to support the development of fast and accurate testing, awarding nearly half a billion dollars through the RADxSM initiative to help rapidly scale up the country’s testing capacity.
Additional grants and research continue to support efforts to create easy-to-use tests, implement innovative ways of getting people tested, and reach underserved communities to ensure that anyone who needs a test can easily get one.
NIH will continue to support research to make testing easier and more efficient. New testing devices and protocols are being developed and studied every day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a test to determine whether a person’s respiratory infection is caused by SARS-CoV-2 or an influenza (flu) virus. This test is available to physicians through public health departments and will be increasingly important as we move into cold and flu season.
COVID-19 Testing Basics
Most health care providers offer COVID-19 testing and should be contacted first if you are experiencing symptoms. Your state health department’s website will have information on additional local testing sites.
You can also schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 diagnostic (polymerase chain reaction, or PCR) test at many national pharmacy chains. Stores with drive-through lanes will ask you to remain in your car while a pharmacist guides you through the self-testing processes. Results are usually available in a few days.
At-home rapid (antigen) tests can be purchased over the counter at many pharmacies, with results ready in as little as 15 minutes. The CDC has more information about self-testing, including how to swab yourself.
If you have been exposed to COVID-19, you should get tested — even if you have been vaccinated. Get tested for COVID-19 if you:
- Have been exposed to someone with COVID-19
- Develop COVID-19 symptoms
- Work or live in a crowded setting where someone tests positive for COVID-19
- Have just returned to the United States from any travel outside the country
- Are required to do so by your employer
A viral test looks for current infection. There are two types of viral tests:
- The antigen test (also called the “rapid test”) gives results in as little as 15 minutes. You are more likely to get a false negative result from the antigen test. If you have symptoms but get a negative test result from the antigen test, your doctor may give you a molecular test to confirm the results.
- The molecular test can take a few days to a week to provide results.
An antibody test is designed to tell you whether you had an infection in the past.
Most people with COVID-19 have mild illness and can recover at home. You can help yourself recover and keep the virus from spreading within your family and to others by following the CDC guidelines for at-home COVID-19 care.
COVID-19 Testing Resources
The CDC shares information about testing and a COVID-19 symptoms checker.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration shares facts about testing regulation and approval.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shares information about where and how to get tested.
The RADx-UP initiative provides communications toolkits in English and Spanish, including resources developed for American Indian tribes.