The end of summer, the outbreaks of COVID-19 on university campuses and the continued reopening of cities are all bringing new questions about coronavirus testing.
Should you get a COVID-19 test — which shows whether you currently have an infection — if you’re about to go on an August vacation with family or friends, or have attended one of the colleges that are sending students home after a spike in cases?
Testing differs by location and some places are experiencing a high demand, which may cause a delay in getting results, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted. Demand for testing is still "astronomical," an urgent care director in New York City recently told TODAY.
Antibody tests — which can show if you had a past coronavirus infection — may be more readily available, but there have been issues with the reliability of results. There have also been concerns about the accuracy of diagnostic COVID-19 tests and the decline in the number of tests being done in many states.
"Our ability to test people is getting worse, not better," Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told TODAY on Aug. 14. "Six, seven months into a pandemic, the fact that we can't test people reliably is shameful."
To get advice about common scenarios people may be facing now, TODAY reached out Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, and Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
LeRoy, a family physician who practices in Dayton, Ohio, worried about a possible second wave of infections to come.
“A chill goes up my spine every time somebody asks, ‘What do you think is going to happen in the future?’” he told TODAY.
“This is something we in the modern era have never encountered. The closest comparison we have is the Spanish flu back in 1918. That came back.”
Here's what you should know:
I’m going to visit an elderly family member. Should I get tested?
No, when it comes to the COVID-19 test, unless you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, have symptoms, work in an industry where you may come across sick people, like health care, or have seen an uptick of cases in your area, LeRoy said.
Instead, just take the necessary precautions of wearing a mask, washing hands and practicing social distancing.
“If you think you’ve been exposed or you have symptoms, I would not visit the elderly family member,” he noted.
As a general rule, “I would limit the number of family members who would go and I would make sure they keep that social distance” — 6 feet is usually recommended, but with the elderly, more distance is a better option, he added.
When LeRoy visited his 91-year-old mother at a nursing home, he brought his mask and hand sanitizer. He said it wouldn’t be practical to take a COVID-19 test every time he came to the facility.
An antibody test may give people peace of mind that they’ve already been exposed to the disease, but doctors don’t know for sure whether antibodies would provide immunity and for how long, LeRoy said. Plus, the person could still be shedding the virus.
I’m going on vacation with extended family. Should I be tested before going?
Again, no, unless you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, have symptoms, work in an industry where you may come across sick people, like health care, or have seen an uptick of cases in your area, LeRoy said.
Have a conversation with your family about the location you’re heading to and what the risks might be. Beware of a scenario like the crowds at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri over the Memorial Day weekend.
“Even if you tested yourself before you left, once you got into that very crowded situation with a bunch of people standing shoulder to shoulder without masks on, what are you going to do — retest yourself every night?” LeRoy noted.
It would be two to five days before you test positive. It’s better to take the necessary precautions: wear masks, pay attention to social distancing, and take hand sanitizer and a thermometer along.
“Everybody should have a clear understanding of their responsibility to take care of themselves so that the family can have a vacation where everybody is safe,” LeRoy said.
My young adult children are being sent home from a university that had a spike in cases. Should they be tested?
Yes, it's a good idea for the students to get a COVID-19 test a few days after coming home, Levine said.
"Ideally, we do testing when we need to do it, so situations like that, I think that makes sense," she noted.
Levine recommended the students quarantine themselves until they get the test result to reduce any risk of infecting the rest of the family or other people they might interact with.
If the young adults knew they were exposed to the coronavirus at the university, getting tested while still at school — before returning home — would be best so they can self-isolate as soon as possible if they're positive.
Should parents of college students who have come home be tested, too?
It depends on the risk to the parents, Levine noted. Are they older or do they have any underlying health conditions that would put them in danger of getting the severe form of COVID-19?
If there's a concern, testing makes sense. It could also be important if you work in health care, a grocery store, a restaurant or any other place where you come across a lot of people and could spread the illness.
Again, wait a few days after your child is back home to get a test because it takes time for the virus to grow.
What about parents of younger kids who are coming back from camp?
After a coronavirus outbreak at a summer camp in Georgia this summer, the CDC noted children are susceptible to the virus and "play an important role in transmission." The agency also said overnight summer camps "pose a unique challenge" when it comes to preventing the spread of infectious diseases.
Just as in the previous scenario, parents getting tested depends on a family's risk factors and the availability of tests, Levine said. Consult your doctor so you're not alone in making the decision, she advised.
The CDC has guidance on how to find testing in your area.