COVID-19 testing put to the test

Testing is an important tool to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, but it's important to know when and how to get tested. 

Photo credit: Mufid Majnun

Nothing has seemed quite “right” in this coronavirus-infected year. This might be why so many Americans sought to have a familiar, comforting, traditional Thanksgiving, despite the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many Americans who chose to attend Thanksgiving gatherings tried to minimize the risk to themselves and loved ones by waiting in long lines and getting a COVID-19 test in advance. 

But the impending post-Thanksgiving spikes in coronavirus cases could be a result of us putting too much confidence in the power of COVID-19 test results. As our next set of holidays nears, we should better understand what a negative COVID-19 test means. Getting tested does not mean you should ignore other public health measures, such as restrictions on gathering with people outside of your immediate household.

When should you get a test?

You should seek out a COVID-19 test if you have symptoms or believe you have been exposed to the virus and are still non-symptomatic. Timely tests of people who suspect they may have contracted the coronavirus can help public health officials stymie potential outbreaks before they happen. Testing should be widely available to anyone who wants a test — especially frontline and essential workers, who should get tested frequently. 

What should you do after taking the test?

You’ve taken the test because you fear you may be carrying the virus, so you should not risk exposing others while you wait for the test results. Sometimes it can take days. Stay at home and do everything possible to avoid potentially infecting your housemates  – wash your hands, wear a mask and keep your distance in case your results come back positive.

What if your test comes back positive? 

You know the drill. Isolate at home and seek medical care if your symptoms worsen.

What if your test comes back negative? 

Feel free to breathe a sigh of relief. But then remember, this is not a green light to go back to pre-pandemic behavior. Why? For several reasons:

Testing is not foolproof. We know that between five to 40 percent of tests show a “false negative” result for a variety of reasons.

A negative test only proves that you did not have detectable COVID-19 at the time of the test. It is not a free pass to risky behavior. You could get a negative result if you are in the early stages of the infection. You could also be exposed to the coronavirus at any moment after the testing. So traveling in airports, eating in restaurants, grabbing a drink with friends or any gathering where you can’t stay masked and keep distant from others can expose you to the virus, and then you may spread it to others. 

Testing is important. No doubt. But with COVID raging out of control across the country, the most important thing you can do is limit your exposure to people outside of your immediate household. Find new ways to embrace the holiday traditions you know and love from a safe distance. The best gift you can give this year is doing your part to keep those you love healthy for another year.  

Most states are not doing enough testing to effectively suppress the virus. Urge your governor to increase testing in your state and speed up turn around times for test results — take action here.

So you need to get a COVID test? 

Check out our testing resources page to find out what your state requires, a state map for testing locations, and other tips. 


Photo credit: Mufid Majnun


Patricia Kelmar

Senior Director, Health Care Campaigns, PIRG

Patricia directs the health care campaign work for U.S. PIRG and provides support to our state offices for state-based health initiatives. Her prior roles include senior policy advisor at NJ Health Care Quality Institute, associate state director at AARP New Jersey and consumer advocate at NJPIRG. She was appointed to the Ground Ambulance and Patient Billing Advisory Committee in 2022 and works with patient advocates across the U.S. Patricia enjoys walking along the Potomac River and sharing her love of books with friends and family around the world.