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November 13, 2020

Should you get a coronavirus test before seeing friends and family?

The upcoming holidays, another major rise in new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and warnings of a deadly winter to come are all bringing new questions about coronavirus testing.

Should you get a COVID-19 test — which shows whether you currently have an infection — if you’re about to visit family for Thanksgiving or take an end-of-the-year vacation?

COVID-19 testing in the U.S. is, by and large, more accessible and faster than it was several months ago. But after the latest surge in the fall, long lines have been forming in places like Washington state, where wait times can be as long as several hours at some testing locations and sites are struggling to keep up with the demand, NBC affiliate KING 5 reported.

Long lines have also been reported in parts of New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, California, Florida and other states.

Antibody tests — which can show if you had a past coronavirus infection — may be more readily accessible, but doctors don't know yet how protected someone might be from getting COVID-19 again if they have antibodies to the new coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted.

Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, has for months been worried about another wave of infections to come.

“A chill goes up my spine every time somebody asks, ‘What do you think is going to happen in the future?’” LeRoy, a family physician who practices in Dayton, Ohio, told TODAY this summer.

“This is something we in the modern era have never encountered. The closest comparison we have is the Spanish flu back in 1918. That came back.”

Here's what you should know:

I'm going to attend or host a family gathering. Should I get tested?

Not everyone needs a test, the CDC advised. It also emphasized the safest way to observe Thanksgiving this year is to stay at home and celebrate with people in your household rather than travel to see extended family.

The CDC recommends a test if:

  • you have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • you have had close contact — within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more — with someone with confirmed COVID-19.
  • ​​you've been referred to get tested by your doctor, or local or state health department.

The best time to test is about five to seven days after an exposure since it takes that long for the virus to replicate enough to be detected.

But a single negative test doesn't mean you don't have the virus, experts said. Doctors call it "simply a snapshot in time." Just because you get a negative result now doesn't mean you won't test positive tomorrow or even later today, so it's not a license to skip basic precautions.

"A negative is not a Get Out of Jail Free card," Dr. Alan Wells, medical director of clinical laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told NBC News.

"I want you to think about testing for COVID-19 like you would think about pregnancy testing for birth control," Dr. Paul Pottinger, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, told KING 5.

"Could be part of the plan, but by itself, it's not going to do it. It's the same thing with COVID-19."

I’m going to visit an elderly family member. Should I get tested?

No, when it comes to the COVID-19 test, unless you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, have symptoms, work in an industry where you may come across sick people, like health care, or have seen an uptick of cases in your area, LeRoy said.

Stick with the necessary precautions of wearing a mask, washing hands and practicing social distancing, LeRoy advised.

“If you think you’ve been exposed or you have symptoms, I would not visit the elderly family member,” he noted.

When LeRoy visited his 91-year-old mother at a nursing home, he brought his mask and hand sanitizer. He said it wouldn’t be practical to take a COVID-19 test every time he came to the facility.

An antibody test may give people peace of mind that they’ve already been exposed to the disease, but they could still be shedding the virus.

I’m going on vacation with extended family. Should I be tested before going?

Again, no, unless you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, have symptoms, work in an industry where you may come across sick people, like health care, or have seen an uptick of cases in your area, LeRoy said.

Have a conversation with your family about the location you’re heading to and what the risks might be. Beware of a scenario like the crowds at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri over the Memorial Day weekend.

“Even if you tested yourself before you left, once you got into that very crowded situation with a bunch of people standing shoulder to shoulder without masks on, what are you going to do — retest yourself every night?” LeRoy noted.

It’s better to take the necessary precautions: wear masks, pay attention to social distancing, and take hand sanitizer and a thermometer along.

“Everybody should have a clear understanding of their responsibility to take care of themselves so that the family can have a vacation where everybody is safe,” LeRoy said.

My young adult children are being sent home from a university that had a spike in cases. Should they be tested?

Yes, it's a good idea for the students to get a COVID-19 test a few days after coming home, said Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Some schools are also requiring students test negative for the virus before heading out for Thanksgiving break, but again it's important to not overly rely on a negative coronavirus test, experts cautioned.

"Let's just say you test negative and you have permission to go home. But then once you get home, you might develop symptoms and in the period even before that you might be spreading to your family," said Dr. Lucian Davis, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.

The best thing students can do is try to quarantine for 14 days before coming home, and then quarantine again at home, especially before they interact with elderly family members or others who may be at higher risk for a COVID infection.

Should parents of college students who have come home be tested, too?

It depends on the risk to the parents, Levine noted. Are they older or do they have any underlying health conditions that would put them in danger of getting the severe form of COVID-19?

If there's a concern, testing makes sense. It could also be important if you work in health care, a grocery store, a restaurant or any other place where you come across a lot of people and could spread the illness.

Again, wait a few days after your child is back home to get a test because it takes time for the virus to grow.

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