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Is it COVID-19 or a cold? Experts discuss when fully vaccinated people should get tested

The delta variant has led to an increase in coronavirus cases in the United States. Here's when experts say fully vaccinated people should get tested.

As the coronavirus surges again in much of the country, many fully vaccinated people are once again wearing masks and following other mitigation strategies that were relaxed earlier this summer, especially as some data indicates that the delta variant is more transmissible and can be spread by vaccinated people.

While the vaccines do offer immense protection, there is a chance of a fully vaccinated person contracting COVID-19 in what's called a breakthrough infection. Fully vaccinated people are extremely unlikely to experience severe symptoms, require hospitalization or die due to the virus.

Experts spoke to TODAY Health about when vaccinated people should consider getting tested for COVID-19 amid the rise in cases nationwide.

When should vaccinated people get tested for COVID-19?

Experts emphasized that anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should get a test, especially if they are showing signs like a fever or loss of taste or smell. If you are exposed to the coronavirus and decide to get tested, wait until three to five days post-exposure for the most accurate result. Continue to wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until receiving a negative test result.

"If a person is fully vaccinated and has symptoms, that needs to be tested and evaluated for COVID (and) for other causes of their symptoms, and they should stay away from people, not just because they might have COVID but because they might be contagious with some other virus," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician.

Adalja noted that for the vast majority of cases, a breakthrough infection in a fully vaccinated person is "not clinically significant." However, Dr. Howard Forman, a professor in Yale's School of Public Health, said that testing can help find cases before they spread to others.

"Testing is still an effective means to reduce spread," said Forman, who pointed out that routine testing at large companies and at events can help catch cases that may not be symptomatic yet.

Adalja emphasized that the vast majority of new cases are occurring in unvaccinated people and said that the best thing people can do to prevent the spread and to avoid contracting the virus is to get vaccinated.

"If every vaccinated person was testing himself every day ... We'd still have 80,000 people in the hospital, we'd still have over 100,000 cases, because this is really an issue where you've got a two-track pandemic," Adalja said. "You've got the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, and the vaccinated are not really contributing to much of the pandemic anymore."

Should vaccinated people test before or after traveling?

Adalja said that testing before or after domestic travel will likely "depend on risk tolerance" for fully vaccinated people.

"I think it all depends on who you are, where you're going, who you're going to be around, and what the level of risk is, because I think if you're going to be around fully vaccinated people, it's going to be rare that you can actually transmit (COVID-19) to another fully vaccinated person," he said.

If you're traveling from a high-risk part of the U.S. or an area where there was recently an outbreak and are unvaccinated, you should get tested, Adalja said.

"If you're a fully vaccinated person, I don't think you need to do that if you don't have symptoms, but some people might want to do it for peace of mind," he added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any fully vaccinated air travelers coming to the U.S. from abroad still need to have a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before they board a flight. Fully vaccinated travelers leaving the U.S. do not need to get tested unless it's required by the country they're visiting.

Should vaccinated people test before visiting family?

Much like testing before or after travel, testing before seeing family will depend on a range of factors, including the vaccine status of those around you and their relative risk from COVID-19.

"If you have an elderly mother that you want to visit ... Having one or two tests will substantially reduce the risk that you're going to transmit it to somebody who, even if vaccinated, is still a high-risk proposition," said Forman.