So now what? Omicron is diminishing. Mask mandates are gone.
But allergies are coming.
So are colds, as outdoor temperatures jump and fall almost hourly. (Mom was right: “Button that jacket!”).
And now, lucky you, you have a stuffy nose, scratchy throat and just feel lousy. Should you test for COVID-19, and if so, what kind of test, and where should you get it?
“If you’re feeling any symptoms at all, you should isolate” until you know for sure if it’s COVID, says Paige Larkin, PhD., director of molecular microbiology at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
The easiest place to start finding out may be in your own bathroom, with a home COVID test.
The federal government has sent out millions of free test kits, and plans to do so again (order via COVIDtests.gov). Plus, the rush on kits at pharmacies has lessened, so they’re a lot easier to come by if you want to buy them.
But, Larkin says, the typical home kit, called an antigen test, “is not as sensitive” as a more accurate test, called PCR.
If you have COVID-like symptoms and get a negative antigen result, Larkin says still isolate, but take another antigen test two or three days later. And check with your doctor.
It’s critical that you follow the instructions on the package. If they say turn the swab in your nose counterclockwise, make sure you turn it exactly that way.
“You can get a false negative if you don’t do it properly,” Larkin states.
On the other hand, “if the [antigen] test is positive and you feel cruddy,” she says, that’s evidence of COVID.
Antigen test results take only about 20 minutes. PCR results can take longer, from an hour to a couple of days, depending on where you go to get that test in person.
Larkin says it’s always best to rely on a long-standing community location, whether it’s hospital or doctor’s office-based, or a pharmacy.
A lot of “pop-up” COVID clinics have surfaced since the pandemic began two years ago, and while many are well-run and perfectly fine, there has been enough news about dubious pop-ups with questionable results that Larkin says it’s worth checking.
“If a clinic asks for a lot of money up front,” Larkin says, “that’s a red flag. Walk out. A reputable health care system is not going” to do that.
Clinics are supposed to be affiliated with a lab, which, in turn, is supposed to be certified by the federal government under a program called CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments).
According to the Axios Chicago website, popup sites are not regulated by health agencies, but the labs connected to them are. Good luck trying to understand how the system works. It’s confusing.
At least there is is a complaint hotline in Illinois, 1-800-252-4343, should you encounter any difficulties.
Anyway, as COVID cases decrease, the lines outside test sites are now gone, and the entrepreneurial push to open a storefront clinic is decreasing as well.
In Evanston, Health and Human Services Director Ike Ogbo says “there was a high demand for tests during the Christmas holidays, but it has dwindled since then.”
Ogbo says a clinic needs a business license in order to operate. He says the city has “received dozens of requests” to open COVID testing sites, but has approved fewer than ten.
And a couple of months ago, one such downtown clinic was ordered closed for failure to get the necessary permission.
In-person COVID tests are often free, but it depends on how “free” is defined. If you have insurance, that might cover everything, depending on your policy. There would be no up-front, out of pocket outlay, but you may have a copay.
The uninsured can have all costs covered by the federal government.
But, if for some reason, you just want to use a credit card or flexible spending account to cover eveything and be done with it, CVS says it’s $139 for tests that have to be sent to a lab. Self-pay is not available for rapid tests.
Besides hospital/urgent care/pharmacies and popup clinics, there are also government-run test centers.
Some other COVID test tips: if you know you’ve been exposed to the virus,Larkin says wait 3-5 days until after exposure before testing, either at home or at a facility. “It takes awhile for the virus to replicate and wreak havoc,” she says.
And even if you’re convinced it’s allergies or a cold, Larkin says it’s important to think of others as well as yourself.
With masks coming off, more exposure to COVID is possible, and you may be asymptomatic and not know you even have it.
So if you’re going to visit someone who has a compromised immune system, or is too young to be vaccinated (like a newborn), or is more susceptible due to older age, precautionary testing, Larkin says, is a good idea.
“I would get a test 100% before seeing my grandparents,” she says.
“What could be fine for me could be fatal for somebody else.”