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Health and Medicine

How Long Will It Take To Get My Coronavirus Test Results? That Depends

A graphic of a patient getting tested for the coronavirus.
Russell Tate of United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives via Unsplash

Some Oregonians say they’re waiting days, sometimes weeks to get coronavirus test results, while others are waiting just a few minutes. So if you go get tested today, how long will you have to wait?

That all depends on what sort of test you get, where you get it, and where you live. Another key factor in recent weeks: whether the lab that’s testing your swab sample is overbooked.

Labs are getting hit with an influx of tests. Part of that is because more people want to get tested — they might not have symptoms, but they just make sure they’re not carrying the virus.

But the influx is mostly because more Oregonians than ever are becoming infected with the coronavirus.

“Our positivity rate has been increasing pretty steadily despite the fact that we're doing more tests,” says public health physician Melissa Sutton of the Oregon Health Authority. “That's due to increasing cases.”

Then there’s an issue with supplies. Around May and June, most Oregon hospitals were doing pretty well. But by mid-July, they started to run low again.

“It’s the swabs that you need to perform the test, it’s the chemicals that are used to process the test, it’s the test kits themselves,” Sutton says.

Early in the pandemic, much of the country was running dangerously low on PPE, or personal protective equipment. That includes medical-grade face masks, gloves and gowns. Eventually, those supplies started to pick back up, and now many Oregon hospitals have at least a month’s worth of PPE. But small towns are still struggling, mostly because it’s harder to get deliveries out there.

Nonetheless, Sutton says supply levels and testing availability is still much better than it was in early March. If you wanted to get tested back then, you needed to have traveled from a high-risk country like China and be seriously ill with coronavirus symptoms, including difficulty breathing and fever.

Now it’s possible to get tested even if you aren’t showing symptoms. Cars are lining up at testing sites across the state while health workers — sometimes dressed head-to-toe in airlocked Hazmat suits — stick long nasal swabs deep into patients’ noses to collect mucus samples.

There are two types of tests available to patients to see if they are actively infected with the coronavirus: an antigen test and a PCR test. They’re not to be confused with the antibody test, which is a blood test that sees whether or not someone has had the coronavirus and gotten over it. Most public health officials don’t recommend antibody tests for individuals, since they’re not always accurate and they could give someone a false sense of security. Also, researchers aren’t entirely sure if people could become infected with the coronavirus more than once. Still, antibody tests can be useful to gain a broader understanding of how the virus is spreading among a given region.

If you want to see if you’re currently carrying the virus, with or without symptoms, your doctor will likely recommend one of two tests. Whichever they choose will likely have a big impact on your wait time to get results.

Antigen Test: Just A Few Minutes, But Not As Sensitive

The antigen test, also called a point-of-care test, is a nasal swab that can produce results in half an hour. They’re more convenient and readily available, but their accuracy varies. Some researchers say they’re accurate only 50 percent of the time, while others say nearly 100 percent. It sort of depends on who makes the test.

“You’re very unlikely to get a false positive,” says Brent Kell, CEO of Valley Immediate Care in Ashland, which is administering antigen coronavirus tests. “The rub has been in the sensitivity.”

Basically, researchers found that some antigen tests were producing too many false negatives, so patients were incorrectly told that they weren’t infected with the coronavirus when, in fact, they were. Until late July, the state of Oregon required that all negative results from antigen tests be re-tested by a PCR test.

Kell says Valley Immediate Care is using an antigen test that has a 97 percent sensitivity rate, which is about as accurate as PCR tests.

Still, some public health officials only recommend antigen tests to people who aren’t showing symptoms and who don’t think they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus recently. For example, if you’re traveling somewhere far away or attending a family gathering and you just want to make sure you’re not unknowingly carrying the virus, the 30-minute antigen test might be a good fit.

PCR Test: Potentially More Accurate, But With Longer Wait Times

The PCR diagnostic test is also a nasal swab, but it requires health workers to send samples to a lab. Sometimes that lab is in-house, otherwise it has to be shipped to a commercial site. Either way, it’s going to take a few days to process.

Many hospitals are solely using the PCR test, including the Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford.

“That's really the most sensitive, high quality test,” says emergency physician Courtney Wilson, who is also Vice President of Medical Affairs. “We tend to use that primarily to identify patients who could have an infection.”

Asante has its own in-house lab, so it’s generally able to produce results within the week. However, Wilson says the hospital is starting to run low on test kits. If it runs out, Asante will have to start sending samples to commercial or state labs, which could add several more days to people’s wait times.