One of the most common questions people are asking physicians right now is if and when they should consider being tested for the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19. It's understandable that people have questions about this, not just because the pandemic continues to rage on, but also because our understanding of how this virus works has continued to change as we learn more and more. There are several scenarios that I think warrant testing, but as always, you should review the following information with your own primary care provider before making any final decisions.
The easiest of these is if someone is symptomatic. Being able to determine whether or not the upper respiratory symptoms that are bothering you are Covid-19 or simply a common cold makes a big difference, both in terms of peace of mind and protecting others. If you do have symptoms that could be Covid-19 (which could include fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, shortness of breath, and/or loss of smell or taste), then it definitely makes sense to get tested.
The rapid antigen test that is available at some offices and urgent care practices is an antigen test that can come back quickly but has a higher false negative rate, which means if you have classic symptoms of Covid-19, a negative test may not be a reliable indicator. It is most useful for population screening of low-risk groups since a positive likely confirms the disease but a negative test does not rule it out in higher risk cases, such as in someone who is symptomatic or has known exposure. The PCR test is the one that takes longer and looks for the genetic information specific to the virus. It is more reliable -- meaning a negative test is more likely a true negative -- but it will take longer to get results, sometimes even five to seven days depending on where you get the test. Of course, you should isolate as if you do have Covid-19 to keep others safe until you get your test results.
If you're asymptomatic but have been exposed to someone with the novel coronavirus, then you should probably get tested around five to seven days after your exposure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines exposure as being within six feet of someone for more than a cumulative 15 minutes in a single 24-hour period. I recommend waiting five to seven days after your last known exposure because testing before this time can have a high rate of false negative results, as the virus may not have built up enough to be detected before that time. If you fall into this category, you should be quarantining for 14 days from exposure, and it's likely that the contact tracers from the Suffolk County Department of Health will be contacting you to give more guidance along these lines.
Then there are people who are asymptomatic and have no known exposure but may need to get tested because of recent travel (or maybe holiday celebrations). If you've traveled from out of state into New York, you are required to isolate when you arrive and then get a Covid-19 test on day four after your arrival.
You may also choose to get tested simply because you're curious about whether or not you're an asymptomatic carrier. We know that asymptomatic spread has been a big driver of this pandemic, so testing asymptomatic people in this category makes some sense in helping to stop community spread, unless you have been avidly following social distancing and effectively haven't been out of your house in six months, at which point it may not make as much sense to be tested as your risk would be very, very low.
This is all information that I've addressed in past columns, but with cases rising locally once more, it warrants review in one place so that we can all continue to stay as safe as possible. In the system in which I work, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, we have several places where testing is available by appointment with a prescription from a local physician's office. These include Parrish Memorial Hall in Southampton on Mondays through Saturdays, East Hampton High School on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the Shelter Island office of the Meeting House Lane Medical Practice on Wednesdays. More information on each of those can be found on the hospital's website. Also on the South Fork, Northwell Health's GoHealth Urgent Care facility at the Bridgehampton Commons offers testing; appointments can be made online at gohealthuc.com.
You should also be able to call your own physician or provider and request information on where to get tested.
Joshua Potter, D.O., a physician with Stony Brook Southampton Hospital's Meeting House Lane Medical Practice, oversees the practice's Shelter Island office. He specializes in family and neuromusculoskeletal medicine. Opinions expressed in this column are his personal and professional views and not necessarily those of his employer.