As the new year begins, testing demand continues to rise, but as many people navigate new guidelines following holiday gatherings, when is the best time to get tested for COVID if you’ve been exposed?
According to some experts, the omicron variant has “accelerated” the timing of what many people associate with COVID.
“As we’ve seen these new variants develop – delta, now omicron – what we’re seeing is everything gets sped up from a COVID standpoint,” said Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady on Thursday. “It is taking less time for someone to become infected after being exposed to COVID.
It takes less time for symptoms to appear, less time for someone to become infectious,
and less time for many people to recover. Much of this is because more people are being vaccinated.”
Changes brought about by the variant have resulted in new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has shifted the timing of isolation and quarantine.
So far, here’s what we know.
When is the Most Appropriate Time to Get Tested After Exposure?
According to the CDC, anyone who has been exposed to someone with COVID should get tested five to seven days after their exposure, or as soon as symptoms appear.
“If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine themselves until a negative test confirms that the symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19,” according to the guidance.
People who have had close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 should test for infection:
- People who have been fully vaccinated should be tested 5–7 days after their last exposure. And who have not been fully vaccinated should be tested as soon as they learn they are a close contact. If their test results are negative, they should tested again 5–7 days after their last exposure, or as soon as symptoms appear.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, stated that incubation times may be changing,
but those who test early should continue testing even if the results are negative.
“We may be learning that the time of incubation is getting shorter. So maybe you’d test in two days “Ezike stated. “If you’re experiencing symptoms, you should get tested right away. But, you know, if you want to test after two days, but the negative test…
the two days shouldn’t make you think, ‘Oh good, I’m clear,’ you know?
You may want to repeat the test, and of course, symptoms that you cannot ignore – scratchy throat, headaches, all kinds of symptoms – anything new can be a symptom of this new illness.”
When Will COVID Symptoms Appear?
COVID symptoms can appear anywhere between two and 14 days after being exposed to the virus,
according to previous CDC guidance.
Anyone who is experiencing symptoms should test for COVID-19.
Some people may not show any symptoms, but they can still spread the virus.
Before symptoms appear, a person is also considered contagious.
When Are COVID Patients Most Contagious?
According to the CDC, its guidelines were updated to reflect growing evidence
that suggests COVID-19 transmission often occurs one to two days before the onset of symptoms and two to three days afterward.
“This has to do with CDC data that showed after seven days there’s almost no risk of transmission at this point,” Arwady explained. “And some is depending on whether people have been vaccinated, underlying conditions, etc., but the risk drops a lot and the feeling is that in the general population, combined with masking, etc., the risk is very low.”
Those who do not have symptoms are considered contagious at least two days before a positive test, according to CDC guidelines.
How Long Should You Isolate or Quarantine?
First and foremost, those who believe they have had contact with someone infected with COVID
and are unvaccinated should quarantine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who test positive, regardless of vaccination status, must isolate.
Here’s the distinction between the two:
According to updated CDC guidance issued Monday, those who have been within six feet of someone
with COVID for at least 15 minutes in 24 hours should quarantine for five days if unvaccinated
or more than six months out from their second vaccine dose.
When that period is over, they should continue to wear masks for an additional five days.
Previously, the CDC advised people who had not fully vaccinated
and had close contact with an infected person to stay at home for at least 10 days.
Before Monday, people who fully vaccinated — defined by the CDC as two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — could exempt from quarantine.
If you fully vaccinated and boosted, you do not need to quarantine if you are in close contact with someone who has COVID. However, you should wear a mask for at least 10 days after exposure. The same is true for those who have fully vaccinated but not yet eligible for a booster shot.
However, local health authorities have the final say on how long a quarantine should last, and testing can play a role.
The Illinois Department of Public Health announced that it will follow the CDC’s revised guidelines for COVID isolation and quarantine.
Those who travel to or from certain parts of the country and unvaccinated must quarantine when they arrive in Chicago, but the length of time they must quarantine depends on whether they tested for COVID.
The city has not yet stated whether the new CDC guidelines will affect its travel advisory guidelines.
According to the city’s travel advisory, those who travel from designated warning states should:
- Get tested with a viral test 3-5 days after travel AND stay home and self-quarantine for a full 7 days.
- Even if your test results are negative, you should remain at home and self-quarantine for the full 7 days.
- If your test results are positive, isolate yourself to keep others from becoming infected.
- If you not tested, you should return home and self-quarantine for 10 days after your trip.
People who test positive for COVID should stay at home for five days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a change from the previously recommended ten days.
If you have no symptoms at the end of the period, you can resume normal activities but must wear a mask everywhere — even at home around others — for at least five more days.
If you still have symptoms after five days of isolation, stay at home until you feel better, then begin your five-day period of wearing a mask at all times.
So, how do you figure out how long you’ll isolate?
“Day 0” is the first day of symptoms, according to the CDC. That is, Day 1 is the first full day following the onset of your symptoms.
Day 0 is the day of the positive test for those who test positive for COVID but have no symptoms. Those who develop symptoms after testing positive must recalculate their calculations, with day 0 becoming the first day of symptoms.
When Is It Time to See a Doctor?
The CDC advises those who have or may have COVID-19 to be on the lookout for emergency warning signs and to seek medical attention immediately if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- Breathing difficulties
- Chest pain or pressure that persists
- new perplexity
- inability to wake up or remain awake
- Depending on skin tone, pale, gray, or blue skin, lips, or nail beds
“This list does not include all possible symptoms,” the CDC notes. “If you have any other severe or concerning symptoms, please contact your medical provider.”
You can also inform the operator if you suspect you or someone you care for has COVID.
What If You Get a Positive At-Home Test?
Those who test positive using an at-home test advised to follow the most recent CDC guidelines and notify their healthcare provider, who responsible for reporting test results to the state health department.
According to Chicago-area health departments, people should assume the test results are correct and isolate themselves from others to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
“You must isolate if you test positive for COVID-19,” Arwady said. “A positive at-home test does not need to repeat in a medical setting. We don’t want people going to the emergency room just to get a blood test. Keep a positive attitude, stay at home, and isolate yourself for five days.”
When is it safe to be around other people after taking COVID?
If you had symptoms, the CDC says you can be around others after five days of isolation and no longer exhibit symptoms. To reduce the risk to others, you should continue to wear masks for the next five days after your symptoms have subsided.