What to do when you think you need a COVID-19 test

Do's and don'ts when you have symptoms or have been exposed to the coronavirus

A nurse wears full-body personal protective gear at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site.

So you wake up in the morning and you’re not feeling well. Invariably these days, you will wonder whether it’s COVID-19 that is making you ill.

Or, you receive word that someone you’ve been in close contact with recently has the virus.

In either case, you ask yourself: What should I do now?

If your symptoms are mild, stay home and monitor them, Sanford Health leaders say. If your symptoms get worse or you are at high risk for serious illness, call your health care provider.

Do seek a COVID-19 test

At Sanford Health, these are common ways to seek a test:

  • Log in. The quickest way to investigate COVID-19 testing is to log in to your My Sanford Chart to request an e-visit. It’s easy from there. Follow the prompts and submit your request. A Sanford provider will respond to you within four hours.
  • Call your clinic. Call to ask your primary care provider’s office whether they recommend a test. For the benefit of patients and health care providers working at these sites, please call rather than going to your clinic.
  • Call a nurse. If you’re new to Sanford Health, or you don’t have a primary care provider, call My Sanford Nurse to learn about your next steps for care.

Do home testing for COVID-19

  • If you’re experiencing symptoms or have a close contact with COVID-19, at-home tests are a potential. These tests are now available at Walmart, Target and Walgreens and other retailers and are quite accurate.
  • You don’t need to retest if your at-home test is positive. You have COVID-19 and you should stay home, take care of your symptoms and contact your provider if you’re experiencing severe symptoms or are high-risk for illness.
  • If you have symptoms and your at-home test is negative, test on your own at least 24 hours after you first tested. Contact your provider if your symptoms get worse or you’re at high risk for severe illness.
  • Learn more about at-home COVID-19 testing.

Don’t go to the emergency room for COVID-19 testing

The emergency room is for patients who are critically ill. In some cases, individuals with mild symptoms, or none at all, are seeking rapid-testing options at hospital emergency rooms.

But if you’re experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath or other potentially life-threatening problems, call 911 or go to your closest emergency room.

“We reserve the rapid tests for people who are currently in the hospital and people we think will likely need to be in the hospital,” said Dr. Doug Griffin, vice president and medical officer of Sanford Fargo.

In those cases, accurate and efficient diagnosis can be crucial.

“We want to know if somebody is COVID-positive or not because they need a certain type of isolation if they are COVID-positive,” Dr. Griffin said. “If somebody has symptoms and it’s not COVID, they do not need the type of isolation that we give for COVID patients.”

Do quarantine if you’re a close contact

If you think you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 but are not experiencing symptoms, the CDC and Sanford do not recommend testing initially. You can self-test, however, regardless of vaccination status, or whether or not you have symptoms.

If you’re not fully vaccinated and come in close contact with someone with COVID-19, the CDC recommends five days of quarantine. That is, work or attend school from home. Wear a surgical mask when you need to leave your home. Limit your interaction with other people. Watch for fever, cough, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of COVID-19.

If fully vaccinated, or you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days, you do not have to quarantine unless you develop symptoms. You should still wear a mask in public.

See the CDC’s latest quarantine and isolation guidelines, including when you’re fully vaccinated or have previously had COVID-19.

Do check before shortening quarantine

CDC guidelines emphasize the importance of self-quarantine and testing for those who have been in contact with people who have the virus.

Their reasoning: People can spread the virus before they show symptoms or without showing symptoms at all.

National health authorities recommend quarantining for five days after your last contact with a COVID-19 patient if you’ve not completed your vaccinations.

Local public health authorities make the final decisions about how long quarantine should last. Follow the recommendations of your local public health department if you need to quarantine.

Don’t ignore other illnesses

Doctors are finding that some who are sick with non-COVID-19 illnesses are deciding that because they’ve tested negative for the virus, they’re not in need of medical attention at all. That can be a dangerous assumption.

“The easiest thing to do is to call your doctor and ask, ‘Do I need to come in for this, or go through the drive-thru for this?’” Dr. Cauwels said. “If you’re healthy and do not have a lot of medical problems, it’s very reasonable to call My Sanford Nurse and talk your way through it. If you have lots of medical problems, it’s better to call your doctor’s office and make sure they know that you’re sick in some way.”

“A doctor may look at them and think, ‘Well, it’s not COVID but you still need care,’” Dr. Cauwels said. “For those folks who carry along the burden of other illnesses, it’s important that their doctor knows about them being ill.”

Do get vaccinated

While both home-testing and tests obtained by health care teams have become an increasingly effective way of tracking the virus, it’s not the ultimate answer, Dr. Cauwels said. Preventive measures remain the best way to stay healthy.

With the omicron variant present in Sanford communities, the public’s efforts to curb its spread remains vital.

That means wearing well-fitted surgical masks or N95 or KN95 models available at local retailers, as well as continuing to be vigilant about washing hands and staying home when sick.

This public effort begins with getting vaccinated and boosted.

“Vaccination is still the best way that we know of to avoid the suffering and possible death that’s associated with getting COVID for your first time,” Dr. Cauwels said.

Information in this story was accurate when it was posted. As the COVID-19 pandemic changes, scientific understanding and guidelines may have changed since the original publication date.

Learn more

Posted In Bemidji, Bismarck, Coronavirus, Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, Fargo, Frequently Asked Questions, Internal Medicine, Sioux Falls