Confused About Whether To Get A Coronavirus Test? Here's What You Need To Know

A nurse wearing full PPE hands a COVID-19 testing kit to a patient in a car at the drive-thru testing site at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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UPDATE:

July 16, 5:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with L.A. County's latest criteria for testing.

This article was originally published on July 10.

For months, Los Angeles County and city officials urged anyone and everyone to get tested for the coronavirus. But this week — even as deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise — they changed course, saying they'll prioritize seniors and people who have symptoms or who work in high-risk environments.

In announcing this Wednesday night, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said people should not be getting tests in order to decide whether they're safe to socialize.

"That's not what these tests are for," he said. "A COVID test isn't an excuse to break the rules and engage in social gatherings outside your household. It's not an excuse to not wear a mask, or to not maintain social distancing. A test is not a passport to party."

The shifting guidelines on testing has, understandably, left a lot of us confused.

Here's what you need to know:

I can't seem to get an appointment to get tested. What's going on?

It's not just you. Lots of people are struggling to sign up for a test or get results back in a timely fashion.

Los Angeles County is now testing, on average, about 26,000 people per day. But with a surge in new cases, the demand for tests has also increased.

Although the labs that process tests are not reporting any shortage of equipment or test kits, there have been ongoing problems with getting results back quickly.

Some people get tests back in a couple days, but for others, it can take more than a week.


RELATED: How To Get Tested In LA


The public health department isn't getting results back any faster. L.A. County's chief medical officer, Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, told me last week that some of the smaller labs are just overwhelmed with the amount of testing they're being asked to do.

Source: California COVID-19 Tracker. (Screenshot: laist.com/projects/2020/coronavirus-tracker/app/california/)

If the public health department has to wait days to get results back, isn't that bad for making sure people who have the virus aren't infecting others?

Yep. It makes contact tracing that much harder. Contact tracers work for the health department and reach out to people who have tested positive or may have been exposed to make sure they can quarantine and, if they need it, help them get medical care.

Delayed results mean infected people may be spreading the disease for days to more and more people without even knowing it, making the web of contacts that tracers must track down bigger and more complicated.

That's a real problem because contact tracing is one of the few tools we know work to contain the spread.

Is this why the city and county are now restricting who can get tested?

In part. County health officials are really trying to direct tests to communities that have been hardest hit with COVID-19 cases and deaths: low-income residents and people of color. L.A. does not have an infinite number of test kits.

And they're expensive — about $150 each.

So health officials want to concentrate on people and places that need these resources the most.

I get that — but it's still a little confusing. Just a week ago health officials were encouraging everyone to get tested, even if they didn't have symptoms.

True. Health officials now have to work against their own narrative. Add this to the growing list of guidance that keeps changing as the pandemic rolls on, and confusion only grows.

So who should get tested?

L.A. public health officials will prioritize you for testing if:

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough, shortness of breath and new loss of taste or smell
  • You live or work in a congregate, high-risk setting such as a skilled nursing facility or group home or you are homeless
  • You have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19

If you think you've been exposed, when should you get tested?

Health officials recommend you wait at least three days after you think you were exposed. During those three days you should isolate yourself as much as possible because you may be what's known as presymptomatic (haven't yet developed symptoms) and very contagious.

It can take up to 14 days to exhibit symptoms. So you need to quarantine for 14 days just to be sure.

L.A. public health officials suggest waiting three days to get tested after exposure to COVID-19. You may need to get tested more than once. (Source: L.A. County Department of Public Health)
Testing infographic in Spanish. (L.A. County Department of Public Health)

If my test comes back negative, I'm in the clear, right?

Wrong. If your first test comes back negative, but you then develop symptoms, you should get tested again.

Plus, a negative test just means — in the best case scenario — that you didn't have the virus at the moment you were tested. You can still get infected! You can even get infected while waiting for your test results.

It's helpful to think of COVID-19 test results this way:

A positive test means you're a threat.

A negative test means you're vulnerable. You could definitely still get sick — and you may even have the virus, it just didn't yet show up in the test.

The public health department recommends you get tested again if you develop symptoms. And you should quarantine.

What do the latest numbers tell us about what's going on with the virus's spread?

A lot of people in L.A. County are infected with the coronavirus: about one in every 140 residents, according to the county's latest estimates.

That means, as one health official recently put it, there will likely be at least a few COVID-19 positive people shopping at the same grocery store as you on any given day.

You won't be able to tell who has the virus because some people have no symptoms or they haven't yet developed symptoms.

Some people were (falsely) taking comfort in the fact that the death rate in L.A. — and in California as a whole — has continued to fall. But that changed this week, when the state hit an all-time high for daily virus-related deaths.

Deaths in Los Angeles County also started creeping up this past week.

But there is some good news. Each person in L.A. with COVID-19 is getting fewer people sick than they were back in March. That's called the infection rate.

Still, so many people have the virus now that even if each sick person only gets one other person sick, the numbers will remain huge. That's why we all need to wear masks and stay 6 feet away from people outside our households.

The positivity rate is the number to pay attention to. That's the share of coronavirus tests that come back positive over a period of time. Right now L.A.'s positivity rate is hovering around 10%.

That means about one out of every 10 people who get tested in L.A. County is positive.

Okay, so back to testing. If you think you need a test, because you're in a high-risk category or you have symptoms, where should you go?

If you have a primary doctor, you should contact them first. If you don't have a doctor, you can call 2-1-1 and they'll find you one.

Your doctor may refer you to a test through a hospital or clinic, which usually have their own labs and may have a faster turnaround time for getting results back.

If you want to get a free test through one of the city or county sites, you have to sign up for an appointment online at covid19.lacounty.gov/testing/.