State officials are urging those who think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 to get tested, as daily testing numbers reached a low point this week. But with guidelines rapidly changing, for many North Carolinians that's easier said than done. WFDD reviewed the latest state and local guidance and spoke with an expert to learn more about how to navigate the process. 

Who qualifies for a COVID-19 test?

It depends on where you're trying to get tested. Each provider has its own rules for who is eligible for testing and who isn't. Some providers require you to have a doctor's order, some say you must have symptoms, and some don't require you to disclose a reason for needing a test at all. For example, the Forsyth County Health Department sponsors twice-weekly testing events that are open to anybody, regardless of whether they have symptoms or have talked to a doctor. 

The best way to figure out whether you can get a test at a specific provider is to contact that provider and ask them directly. The state does recommend that certain people get tested, but those guidelines do not prevent providers from offering tests under their own rules. 

Who does the state recommend for testing?

Right now, the state says that anyone with symptoms should get tested. They also recommend testing for people without symptoms if they: 

  • Have had contact with a known positive case

  • Are at high risk of exposure due to their job

  • Are a member of a historically marginalized group

  • Have attended a mass gathering

  • Are at high risk of severe illness

If you believe you have been exposed and fall into any of those categories, the state says you should be tested for the virus regardless of whether you have symptoms. 

Are the state's guidelines different from the CDC's?

Before Monday, the state's guidelines were essentially in line with the CDC's, which recommended testing for all close contacts of someone with COVID-19, regardless of symptoms “because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission.” 

On Monday, the guidelines on the CDC's website changed to state that if you're asymptomatic, you don't necessarily need a test, even if you know you've been exposed to someone with the virus “unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or State or local public health officials recommend you take one." But, late on Wednesday, the CDC's director walked back some of that guidance, telling The New York Times “testing may be considered for all close contacts of confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients.” However, the guidelines on the CDC's website haven't been changed to reflect this new statement.

At a press conference Wednesday, Governor Roy Cooper made it clear that the state has no plans to change their guidelines, regardless of the CDC's recent moves. 

“We want more people to be tested,” said Cooper. “We think even asymptomatic people who think they may have been in contact or think they may be at risk in any way to get tested. This gives us the information that we need in order to be able to put together contact tracing. And it allows people to know that they need to quarantine themselves to protect their family and their friends.”

How do I find a place to get a free test?

One way to guarantee that you will not pay is to get tested at a free community testing event. You can find a list of them on the NCDHHS website. There, you can search by county and find a list of all the pop-up testing events in your area, along with information about costs. One disadvantage is that these events only take place on certain days and times, so if you need a test within a certain window, the timing may not work out for you. 

Also on the NCDHHS site, there is another tool called Test Site Finder. This one can help you find other testing providers in your area (not events) and it lists the restrictions each one has. But, these testing sites are not endorsed or vetted by NCDHHS. And some of these providers do not offer testing completely for free, so it's important to call them and ask directly whether costs are covered. 

If you have a doctor, the state advises you to consult them to find your best options for testing. 

How long will it take to get results back?

It varies. Joshua Swift, the director of the Forsyth County Health Department, says turnaround times depend on how much testing currently is being done, among other things, and it can be unpredictable.

“They're [testing providers]  just judging, in my opinion, based on past results, the most recent results that they're getting. I'm sure that they would tend to underpromise and overdeliver," said Swift. "They'd rather tell you five days and you get the results in three rather than tell you three and you get the results in five. It's just dependent on the demand, how much testing is being done across the state and in other areas. So I think that that's been the biggest thing that's been perplexing for us.” 

As of this week, officials are now providing average turnaround times for testing statewide on the NCDHHS COVID-19 Dashboard.

For the most up-to-date information on coronavirus in North Carolina, visit our Live Updates blog here. WFDD wants to hear your stories — connect with us and let us know what you're experiencing.

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