A weeks-long test kit shortage at the start of the COVID-19 crisis left California health officials in the dark about the disease’s impact. Now, many counties have robust testing capacity and are encouraging the general public to get screened.
Which leaves many of us with the lingering question, should I get a COVID-19 test?
The test that’s widely available now in Sacramento and other counties is the viral test, which tells someone whether they have an active case of COVID-19. An antibody test tells people whether they had COVID-19 in the past, but scientists are skeptical about the reliability of those screenings.
Some counties are telling everyone to get a COVID-19 viral test, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, recently spent time with an infected person, or work in a high-risk environment.
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Sacramento County Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye says they’re prioritizing people who feel sick, but that’s not a requirement for getting screened.
“We’re still trying to get additional information about how widespread the disease is,” she said. “One way of doing that is surveillance, where you’re able to test those that don’t have symptoms, because that gives you an idea of the level of spread in the community.”
“We are encouraging everyone to get tested; we do have several sites that are available right now,” she said.
Find a list of available testing sites in Sacramento County, and instructions for making an appointment here.
Sonoma County officials made a similar argument when they put out a recent widespread call for residents to get tested.
“Community-wide testing is a critical step toward re-opening the county and allows us to identify and increase our understanding of COVID-19 community transmission,” the notice reads. “This includes collecting a broad sample of results from people with or without symptoms.”
On May 18, San Mateo County began offering testing to anyone who wants to make an appointment. In some counties, testing is still limited to people who are experiencing cough, fever, muscle soreness and other COVID-19 symptoms.
Here are a few pointers to help you decide whether to get screened:
Who should get a COVID-19 test?
If you’re experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19, it’s important to call your primary care physician or your county health department to find out how to get tested.
If you’ve recently spent time with someone who was experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19, even if they haven’t been tested yet, you might consider getting a test.
If you work in an environment where you’re exposed to many people, such as a hospital, a school, a correctional facility or a grocery store, getting a test might be worth your time.
I don’t have any symptoms and I don’t know anyone who does. Why would I get a test?
Depending on where you live, your local public health officials might want you to get a test to help them collect data.
Even if you feel fine, you may be a carrier of COVID-19, and knowing you’re infected can help you protect others. If you test positive, it gives county health workers the opportunity to do contact tracing and track down people in your life who might also have been exposed.
In Sacramento County, officials say they have testing capacity that’s not being used right now, and they’re actively expanding the number of available test sites. At this time, making an appointment doesn’t mean you’re taking one away from someone else.
I might have been exposed a while ago. Should I still get a test?
Some research has shown that someone who has contracted the disease will test positive for several weeks after infection. Even if you don’t feel sick anymore, the test may still be able to tell you whether you have the virus.
How much does a test cost?
Testing is free for all Californians, including those who are uninsured or undocumented.
How can I get a test that tells me whether I’ve previously had COVID-19?
That’s the antibody test, which isn’t widely available in most counties. You can pay for it through some online companies, and some employers are offering it. But public health experts generally consider it unreliable at this time because of the likelihood of false positives.
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