COVID-19 Testing Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most important thing to know about testing for COVID-19?

  • COVID-19 testing is critical to ensure prompt diagnosis, treatment, and isolation to protect others.
  • Access to testing is expanding in California.
  • Testing is not a substitute for wearing a face covering, self-quarantining when you have had a known exposure, and physically distancing (six feet apart).
  • If the county you live in is under the Regional Stay at Home order, please stay home except for essential activities to reduce transmission. You may travel for medical needs, including testing.

Who should get tested for COVID-19?

  • Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms.
    • Fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea.
  • Anyone who is a close contact of someone with confirmed COVID-19, even if you don’t have symptoms.
    • “Close contact” means you were less than six feet away from someone for more than 15 minutes over 24 hours (i.e., it could be that you were close to someone who is COVID-19 positive for 3 different short, 5-minute conversations in a day. That counts as a close contact.).
  • Anyone who has been told to get tested by a healthcare provider or public health department, including a contract tracer. In some situations, such as outbreak investigations, testing of people without symptoms is also indicated as directed by the health department.
  • Anyone who gets an exposure notification from CA Notify.
  • Essential workers with frequent contacts with the public in the following areas: health care, public safety, first response, social service, food and grocery services, factory in food and retail, public transportation, and education.

Due to asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, testing individuals with and without symptoms is part of California’s pandemic control strategy. This includes individuals who are asymptomatic, but are mixing frequently with others outside of their household and especially indoors and for long durations.

What types of COVID-19 tests are available?

There are two different types of tests: diagnostic and serologic.

  • Diagnostic tests can show if you have an active COVID-19 infection. Currently there are two types of diagnostic tests, molecular tests (PCR) that detect the virus genetic material and antigen tests that detect specific proteins from the virus. Antigen tests are not recommended for one-time testing of asymptomatic individuals as they are less sensitive than molecular tests.
  • Serologic tests look for antibodies to the COVID-19 virus in someone who was previously infected.

Does it cost anything to get a test?

There are no out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing at a testing site. An insured person can get a COVID-19 test when needed by any provider, in or out of their health plan network, at no cost. If you’re uninsured, the government pays for your test.

How long does it take to get test results?

Timely test results are important to inform clinical care and to support public health measures to control COVID-19. Different testing technologies produce results in different time frames. The goal of testing in California is to have results reported within 48 hours. During periods of high testing demand getting test results may take longer.

What should you do while you wait for your results?

  • Quarantine (isolate yourself from others).
  • Only leave your house for medical appointments or if you are the only person in your household who can buy groceries. Always make sure to wear a face covering.

What do the results mean?

  • A positive test means that you have COVID-19, and you should:
    • Stay home
    • Get rest and stay hydrated
    • Stay in touch with your doctor
    • Separate yourself from other people as much as your living situation permits
    • Wear a face covering as much as you can indoors to reduce transmission to household members.
  • A negative test only means that you probably did not have COVID-19 at the time you were tested.
    • This does not mean you will not get sick in a few days or that you will not be able to infect others.
    • Please reach out to your health care provider if you have questions or think you may need to be retested.
  • A presumptive positive means that the test was not able to confirm with adequate certainty that your sample had COVID-19 present, and you should:
    • Get retested as soon as possible
    • Stay home while you wait for your new test results
    • Separate yourself from other people as much as your living situation permits.

What are limitations to COVID-19 diagnostic tests?

As with other kinds of diagnostic testing, testing for COVID-19 can yield false negative or false positive results. False negative results can occur if a specimen was not properly obtained or if a patient was tested too early or too late in their infection. Laboratory error is also a possible cause of false negative test results. False positive results are far less common but possible depending on the type of COVID-19 test used.