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Skagit County Public Health has been receiving a lot of calls in recent days from people asking about local COVID-19 testing options. In the past week alone, about 30% of all our incoming calls have been about testing.
Most callers are asking about access and want to know where they can go locally to get tested. In response, we have made sure that our testing options webpage is up-to-date and matches the Washington Department of Health’s list as well.
For a list of local testing options, go to: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HealthDiseases/coronavirusTESTsites.htm.
Many callers are also wondering about the differences between testing locations and the types of tests that they offer. While some locations offer both PCR and Antigen testing, many times a location will provide one or the other. With the recent opening of the Canadian border to fully vaccinated Americans, it is not surprising that so many people are wondering about which type of COVID test they should get.
So, here are some answers that may be helpful as you choose between testing options:
When should I get tested?
If you have had close contact exposure to a COVID-19 case or if you are concerned that you may have been exposed and are not experiencing symptoms, it is recommended that you wait 3 to 5 days after that initial exposure to get a diagnostic test. This wait time is due to the incubation period of the virus, the amount of the virus in your body, and the characteristics of diagnostic tests.
Those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should get tested as soon as possible. Symptoms may include the following:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
What types of tests are available?
There are essentially two broad categories of testing:
- Antigen test (frequently referred to as a rapid test). This test detects protein fragments specific to the Coronavirus. It can be done in at a pharmacy, clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital. Turnaround time for results is usually very quick, and in some cases, results can be reported within 15 minutes.
- PCR test (may be referred to as a viral or molecular test). PCR testing is considered the “gold standard” in SARS-CoV-2 detection. This test actually detects RNA (or genetic material) that is specific to the virus and can detect the virus within days of infection, even those who have no symptoms. The test can also be done at a pharmacy, clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital. Turnaround time for results can be longer (generally in the 2-3 day range) since PCR samples are tested in a lab.
What kind of test should I get?
It is always best to talk with your health care provider about which test is best for you.
If you have symptoms, get the quick antigen test if it is available. If it is positive, you can start isolating right away to protect those around you from the spread of the virus. If the antigen test is negative, you should get retested using a PCR test and be sure to isolate yourself until you receive the result.
For most people who do not have symptoms but want to be tested because they may have been exposed or are traveling soon, the PCR test is the better choice. It can find small amounts of the virus that might be seen before symptoms start.
How accurate are these tests?
PCR tests work by detecting genetic material from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 cannot be confused with the genetic material from other viruses, so this kind of test is highly specific. This means it rarely gives a false positive. If you are tested and the test comes back positive, you can be very sure that you are infected with this virus. Antigen tests are also very specific and rarely give a false positive.
Unfortunately, neither test is equally sensitive. If the specimen collection is not done perfectly, or if you are in an early stage of infection or already partially recovered, a sample might not contain enough viral material to come back positive. This is why timing is key for getting a positive test result. If you have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 but are not sick, it is best to get tested at least 5 days after the last potential exposure.
Because false negative results on diagnostic tests can happen, a negative result should not give you a sense of false security. If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, it is safest to assume you are infected and self-quarantine.
What test do I need to travel?
While the most universally accepted COVID-19 test is a molecular PCR test, some destinations may accept antigen tests as well. It is best to check with your destination, airline (etc.) when planning your trip.
If you are not fully vaccinated and must travel domestically or internationally, you will be required to get tested 1-3 days before your trip. Those who are fully vaccinated do not require testing before domestic travel, however most international destinations will still require pre-travel testing.
For those traveling, the best local PCR testing option is:
I’m looking for a low barrier testing option in Skagit County. Where should I go?
Skagit County Public Health is now offering free antigen testing at our Wednesday evening vaccine clinics at the Skagit County Administrative Building (700 S 2nd Street Mount Vernon, WA 98273) from 6-9pm.
We accept anyone 5 years and older; no appointment or insurance required. Test results are available in 15 minutes.
Note: This is NOT intended as a pre-travel test.
Can I use an At-Home Test Kit?
If you need to be tested for COVID-19 and can’t get tested by a healthcare provider or another testing location, you can consider using either a self-collection kit or a self-test that can be performed at home or anywhere else. Sometimes a self-test is also called a “home test” or an “at-home test.”
The following At-Home Tests are recommended by the Washington Department of Health (DOH):
When using an At-Home Test, please keep the following in mind:
- All instructions for performing the test must be followed.
- Self-tests can be used by anyone who is symptomatic regardless of their vaccination status.
- Unvaccinated persons with no COVID-19 symptoms can also use self-tests, especially if they were potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19.
- If an individual tests positive, they should isolate and inform any close contacts.
Those who test positive are asked to call the WA State COVID-19 Hotline at 1-800-525-0127 as soon as possible. The hotline is open from 6 AM to 10 PM Monday, and 6 AM to 6 PM Tuesday – Friday (and observed state holidays). Language assistance is available.
What is an Antibody test?
An antibody test looks for the body’s response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It is a blood test that is good at determining if you had the disease, but not good for determining if you have the disease. As such, antibody tests should not be used to diagnose the virus.
While there is evidence that antibodies may provide protection from infection, that has not yet been proven and therefore results of an antibody test should not be used to determine immunity.
For more information about testing and for frequently asked questions, go to the WA DOH COVID-19 Testing webpage: https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19/TestingforCOVID19.