Story at a glance
- Omicron is spreading rapidly, and many people are reporting mild symptoms.
- Rapid antigen tests are good for assessing whether someone is contagious.
- PCR tests are necessary after a known exposure.
There are reports that the omicron variant of the coronavirus may be less severe than previous versions. Currently, there isn’t enough data yet to know, but many people are experiencing milder symptoms, including fatigue and headache.
While it’s important to know what to look for, having any symptoms at all could be enough to get tested.
“The trick is you’re not going to be able to tell the difference between omicron, delta lambda, plain COVID from the beginning,” says physician Emily Landon, an infectious diseases specialist and chief hospital epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, to NBC Chicago. “Influenza or even common rhinovirus causes most of our common colds in the winter. You’re not going to know the difference between those if you just look at your symptoms.”
When to get rapid antigen tested
Rapid antigen tests, which can be taken at a testing site or with one of the FDA approved at-home kits, are useful for determining if there’s a high chance you are contagious at the moment. This involves a nose swab and a small plastic indicator, which looks much like a pregnancy test. The results are ready within 15 minutes. These tests are designed to detect infection once it hits a certain threshold level and there is enough virus present, so if you are recently exposed or infected it may not provide any useful information.
Antigen tests can be used at the first sign of symptoms or the day of an event or gathering. A negative test does not necessarily mean you are not infected, but a positive test could tell you that you are infectious and should be isolated.
When to get a PCR test
If you are planning to go to an indoor gathering or travel via plane or bus, you should get a PCR test. If you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, you should get a PCR test. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that vaccinated individuals get tested five to seven days after an exposure. People who are not vaccinated should get tested immediately and if the result is negative get another test five to seven days later.
Masks plus distancing plus testing
It’s not helpful to try to guess whether you have COVID-19 based on your symptoms. You could have a cold, or you could have coronavirus, and only testing will tell you which one. Some people have shared anecdotes about testing negative more than once after a known exposure to a case, only to test positive a few days later. Knowing this, it could be important to get tested multiple times in the week after an exposure.
At this point, health officials are recommending wearing face masks when in public indoor spaces again and getting tested often. It’s also recommended to keep distance from others in public spaces, even outdoors. Testing may involve long lines in urban areas at the moment because of the surge of cases, but there are programs and sites that take appointments. Find out where your local government is running testing. There’s also a public database with free rapid antigen and PCR testing sites listed by state.
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