Every cold is COVID-19 until proven otherwise
WISCONSIN RAPIDS – Testing, testing… Can you hear us?
As local physicians, we are asked a lot of questions about COVID-19 testing and quarantining… by our patients, friends, neighbors, and relatives. So we compiled some useful information about the different types of COVID-19 tests, who needs a test (spoiler alert: every cold, every time), and when it’s appropriate to quarantine and for how long.
Types of tests
There are three types of COVID-19 tests you have probably heard of. It’s important to know that we are talking only about tests that have FDA approval or emergency use authorization. Here’s a brief description of each:
PCR test: This is the “gold standard,” generally thought to be very accurate (i.e., we can believe a negative test is really negative, and a positive test is really positive). This test detects viral genetic material called RNA present in a person’s nose or throat, depending on how the test is done. Turnaround time at our clinic is currently 2-3 days, sometimes longer.
Antigen test: This is a fast test, similar to what we do for strep or influenza, where a test is done on nasal or oral swabs and back within an hour. While a positive test can mean the person has COVID-19, a negative test is not necessarily accurate. It is recommended that a negative antigen test is still considered positive until a back-up PCR test can be done. This test is not good for “screening” people without symptoms. Also, we just learned that the state of Wisconsin is not counting people with positive rapid COVID-19 tests as “true positives,” which is NOT how the health care community is currently operating. (Work is being done to remove this discrepancy.)
Antibody test: This shows if a person has evidence of antibodies against COVID-19 in their body, meaning they were previously infected. This should NOT be taken to mean that the person is now immune and won’t get COVID-19 again. There are many other forms of immunity your body may have that are NOT represented by this test. This is really not a very useful test.
When should you get tested?
You’re not going to like this answer, but every person with one or more symptoms of COVID-19 needs a test and should isolate immediately upon noticing symptoms. Please don’t wait until you can’t smell or develop a bad cough. A “cold” is never just a cold anymore, and the longer you wait to isolate and test, the more people you are exposing.
Below are the symptoms that can be associated with COVID-19 infection. Remember, COVID-19 can manifest as multiple or just a few symptoms, no symptoms, mild or severe symptoms, etc:
There is not a clinician in the world who can tell the difference between COVID-19, influenza, a cold, or a tummy bug. No one. If there was some easy trick, trust us, we would be using it. Instead, we need to rely on testing.
We should mention that if someone has a pre-existing condition that causes them to have one of these symptoms, and this symptom is within normal limits for them, they may not need a test. An example would be a person who always gets migraine headaches and has a migraine that is typical for them. Another example is if someone typically vomits when they have menstrual cramps, etc. We do think there needs to be caution with things such as “allergies,” however. There have been many cases of people thinking COVID-19 was “just their allergies” that got worse.
We again stress that it’s important to isolate at the first signs of symptoms until you can get a test and see the result. Why? Well, if you think you have “just a cold” and run around your work and the rest of town for three days prior to getting a test, then test positive, you have endangered everyone around you during that time. Remember: Every cold is COVID-19 until proven otherwise!
If you have COVID-19, you will be instructed to stay home and “isolate” from anyone else for 10 days from the onset of your symptoms. If you didn’t have symptoms but tested positive, it would be 10 days from the date of your test. This is because after 10 days, it is thought that people are no longer shedding virus that is able to infect others.
Quarantine: What it means for you
If you have close contact with someone known to have COVID-19 (coming within 6 feet of them for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour span), you will need to quarantine for 14 days. This is because the virus can need an incubation time of up to 14 days to cause an infection. Generally, if people are going to show symptoms after an exposure, they do so within a week, but a significant number take up to 14 days. People with exposure should request COVID-19 testing 4-5 days after their exposure; but testing during a quarantine WILL NOT get you out of quarantine! This is to pick up any asymptomatic infections out there after a contact.
You can be mad, frustrated, think this is “overreach” or be “over this,” but it won’t help the fact that Wisconsin continues to be the country’s epicenter of COVID-19 infections. We think our state is in such bad shape at least in part due to people not isolating and getting tested with mild cold-like symptoms. Remember, every cold is COVID-19 until proven otherwise.
Where to get tested
The Aspirus website has an entire section filled with COVID-19 information and resources, including a list of testing options. Visit aspirus.org/coronavirus-covid19 for details on the many testing options available. They include:
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of taste and/or smell
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Body aches and/or fatigue
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Fever or chills
AAP updated guidance on COVID testing: https://services.aap.org/.../covid-19-testing-guidance/
CDC testing guidance: https://www.cdc.gov/.../testing/diagnostic-testing.html...
Aspirus is a non-profit, community-directed health system based in Wausau, Wisconsin. Its 8,700 employees are focused on improving the health and well-being of people throughout Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Aspirus serves communities through four hospitals in Michigan and six hospitals in Wisconsin, 50 clinics, home health and hospice care, pharmacies, critical care and air-medical transport, medical goods, nursing homes and a broad network of physicians. Aspirus has been recognized for three consecutive years by IBM Watson Health as a Top 15 Health System in its annual study identifying the top-performing health systems in the country. For more information, visit aspirus.org
- The MyAspirus app – the app includes a COVID-29 symptom checker and enables you to schedule an appointment at the Aspirus testing site of your choice. If you don’t already have a MyAspirus account, visit myaspirus.org to sign up.
- The Aspirus COVID-19 Call Center Hotline – 1-844-568-0701 or 1-715-843-1454 (In the Portage, WI area, call 1-608-745-490). The hotline is staffed 7 am to 7 pm weekdays and 8 am to 5 pm weekends. Please note that the hotline often experiences high call volumes.
- Community/National Guard COVID-19 testing events – the list on aspirus.org/coronavirus-covid19 is continuously updated to reflect testing events throughout the Aspirus service area.