How do I get tested for COVID-19?

After an initial surge in testing when it was opened up to asymptomatic Georgians, testing has dropped across the state. Many people are unaware of how to get a test, and have questions about the process and the cost.

There are a lot of options to get tested for COVID-19 across the state, from private clinics, testing events, and public health testing locations. There is also confusion about what types of test to get, with both viral (PCR) tests and antibody (serology) tests widely available.

Types of Tests

There are two different types of tests for COVID-19. They are performed differently, and they tell you different things. They also have different levels of accuracy. For more detailed information on testing, read more at COVID Explained: Testing.

Viral (PCR/molecular) Tests

A viral (also called PCR or molecular) test tells you if you have a current infection. Viral tests are performed by swabbing nose and/or throat secretions of a patient.

The most accurate type of test is a nasopharyngeal (NP) swab – a very long swab that goes into your nose about 2″ to your throat. This type of test can be uncomfortable, but is the most accurate at detecting active infection. An oropharyngeal (OP) swab can also be used that swabs deep in your throat via your mouth. Finally, there is less invasive nasal swab options where you can often swab your own nose under the supervision of a healthcare provider, but these have a higher chance of missing active infection.

Results from most viral tests take a few days to a week. Some rapid tests can provide results in 15 minutes or less, but they are more likely to give false negatives (miss active infections). If you test negative on a rapid test but are showing symptoms, you will probably need a repeat test that is sent off to a lab.

Viral tests can report a false negative if taken very soon after exposure. If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, you should get tested after several days (or upon the onset of symptoms) to ensure that enough of the virus would be detectable.

Any Georgia resident can get a viral test free of charge. The test is covered by insurance at private clinics, or free at DPH testing locations and various testing events. You should NOT have to pay out of pocket for a viral test. If you do not have insurance, contact your regional DPH for free testing.

Antibody (Serology) Tests

An antibody (serology) test tells you if you had a prior infection. Antibody testing can determine who may have recovered from a COVID infection, but generally aren’t useful to identify who is currently sick. Antibody testing for COVID is performed via a blood test.

There are two main types of antibodies involved with COVID testing: IgM (developed in early stages of an infection) and IgG (developed in later stages). Some antibody tests check for both types of antibodies, some only check for one type.

There are also two methods of antibody testing. Finger prick tests give rapid results and provide a yes/no answer as to whether they detect antibodies. Tests done via blood draws that are sent off to a lab take longer to get results, but they actually measure the quantity of antibodies detected, and so give more informative results.

It’s possible to test positive on an antibody test if you are still infectious, but it would most likely be in the later stages of the illness. The main purpose of antibody testing is to determine if you have recovered from COVID and now have antibodies to potentially fight off a future infection. There is no guarantee that having antibodies gives long-lasting immunity to COVID-19, but that is the hope.

If you test negative for COVID antibodies, it means you likely have not been infected with COVID in the past and do not have protective antibodies to give immunity to future infection.

Antibody tests may be covered by health insurance. Otherwise, you will have to pay out of pocket. Some employers are paying for antibody testing for their employees.

Where to Get a Test

Viral tests are available at many locations. Contact a provider or DPH office near you to find out details about locations, hours, and costs. If you have insurance, it will cover the cost of your testing.

If you do not have insurance, you do NOT have to pay out of pocket for a test. DPH offers FREE testing for all Georgia residents.

Many providers and testing locations/events require an appointment, but some offer no-appointment drive-up or walk-ups service. Also, some providers require a doctor’s referral and some do not. Call ahead or check online to find out the details before showing up for a test.

I found a nice interactive map of testing locations from the Atlanta Regional Commission. It includes both public, private, and non-profit testing locations across Georgia (not just the Atlanta area).

Antibody tests are available from most private healthcare providers, but are not available from DPH at this time.

Free COVID-19 testing graphic