Do I have COVID-19? What to do if you suspect infection — and how to find out for sure

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Maybe you’re a parent who just got a notice from school about your child being exposed to someone with COVID-19. Maybe your roommate has been mildly ill for the past few days and now you’re starting to wonder if you've caught the same thing. Do you know what to do to keep yourself and those around you safe from COVID-19 or another illness? 

Health experts unanimously agree on basic mitigation efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, especially by people who think they may be a carrier of the coronavirus. Along with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local health professionals agree that effective testing and surveillance of active cases can prevent the disease from spreading to others. 

One of the most effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 remains vaccination, which has also been shown to reduce the chance of severe illness, hospitalization and death. With about half of Americans vaccinated and about one in three in Carter County vaccinated, testing efforts for each category can vary slightly. 

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Who should get a COVID-19 test?

  • Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms; 
  • Anyone in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19; 
  • Unvaccinated people who have taken part in activities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 because they cannot physically distance as needed to avoid exposure (public travel, mass gatherings, crowded or poorly-ventilated indoor settings). 

For Dr. Nate Claver, the emergency department director at Mercy Hospital Ardmore, some of the most surprising cases of COVID-19 are the people that didn’t even know they had it.  

"Sometimes we’ll have someone come in with maybe chest pain or shortness of breath and they really don’t have any of the other viral symptoms, and we might test them as a screening measure for admit or transfer and they’re positive,” said Claver. 

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

He said the symptoms for COVID-19 can vary widely, from coughing, fevers, and congestion commonly attributed to viral respiratory illnesses to vomiting and diarrhea. Muscle and body aches, headaches, chills, and a loss of taste and smell are also symptoms commonly attributed to COVID-19. 

Guidance from the Oklahoma State Department of Health given to schools this year breaks down symptoms into two categories. Students are recommended to test if they have three of nine listed mild symptoms (nasal congestion/stuffy nose, runny nose, muscle/body aches, fatigue, chills, nausea, loss of appetite, elevated temperature below 100.4 degrees, new onset of severe headache).

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COVID-19 symptoms in kids

Children in Oklahoma schools are also recommended to test for COVID-19 if they exhibit any one of six listed severe symptoms (fever over 100.4 degrees, sore throat, cough, difficulty breathing, diarrhea or vomiting, new loss of taste or smell).  

While someone may not have any symptoms and generally feel okay, coming into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 is also reason to get a test regardless of vaccination status. According to the CDC, a close contact is anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more. An infected person can spread COVID-19 starting 48 hours before the showing any symptoms or testing positive. 

”If you’re around someone for 24 hours and you’re intermittently around them, that would count as your 15 minutes if you’re around them for five minutes at a time,” said Claver.

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When should you get a COVID-19 test? 

  • With symptoms: immediately;
  • After known exposure, regardless of symptoms: 
    • Vaccinated: 3-5 days after exposure; 
    • Unvaccinated: immediately, then again 5-7 days after exposure;
  • Recently recovered from COVID-19 without symptoms: no test necessary.

So you know that a COVID-19 test is needed for one reason or another, but when should you take it to know for sure? Taking it too early could result in a false negative but taking it too late could mean an unnecessary quarantine. 

For someone with symptoms, they should take the test immediately since they may have an active infection. The CDC has slightly different recommendations for a vaccinated and unvaccinated people who were around someone with COVID-19. Regardless, anyone unsure if they have COVID-19 should take precautions like masks, social distancing, and hygiene at least until they have confirmed a negative test result. 

People who are fully vaccinated should get tested three to five days after exposure and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result. People who are not fully vaccinated should quarantine and be tested immediately after being identified, and, if negative, tested again five to seven days after their last exposure. 

One notable exception for testing after exposure is for someone who has recently recovered from COVID-19. People who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past three months and recovered do not need to get tested as long as they don't develop symptoms.

Carter County COVID-19 vaccine tracker:34% of people fully vaccinated

Where to find a COVID-19 test

  • County health department: by appointment, 3-5 day results;
  • Health care providers: varies by location;
  • Retail pharmacies: over-the-counter rapid tests.

Unlike the early days in the pandemic when surveillance was one of the few public health efforts to combat the pandemic, widespread availability of vaccines has become perhaps the most important mitigation effort in the U.S. Initial testing was slow and limited to the state department of health and a small number of doctors and pharmacies, but rapid tests for COVID-19 can now be purchased at retail pharmacies for home use. 

State health department regional director Mendy Spohn said positive and negative results from tests performed by medical providers and laboratories are recorded in the state system. While at-home tests are not recorded by public health officials, Spohn said that they are still helpful for keeping people easily informed about their own health. 

“Home tests are excellent screening tools that allow the public to know if they are positive before going to work or in the public to potentially infect others,” said Spohn. 

Some retail pharmacies in Ardmore, including CVS and Walgreens, frequently have multiple tests sold in a pack with prices around $10 per test. Pharmacies and health care providers also test for COVID-19 but many require appointments. The Carter County Health Department also provides testing for individuals by appointment.

You've been tested for COVID, now what?

  • With symptoms: isolate from others regardless of test result;
  • Positive test without symptoms: isolate at home for at least 10 days;
  • Unvaccinated with negative test: quarantine for 7 days after exposure and retest, or quarantine 14 days after exposure without retest.

Because no test will be 100% accurate, other measures must still be taken by someone who suspects they may have COVID-19. If test results will take days, continue other mitigation efforts like masking, social distancing, hygiene and quarantine until results have been confirmed.

While people vaccinated against COVID-19 can mostly resume normal activities once they receive a negative test, those who are unvaccinated must still take extra precautions in the event of false negatives.

For someone who was exposed to someone with COVID-19 but tested negative between five and seven days after that exposure, the CDC recommends they still quarantine and retest after seven days. 

Anybody with symptoms should continue to isolate themselves from others regardless of test results. 

Spohn said the county health department often fields questions about testing, quarantining, vaccinations and other aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oklahoma State Department of Health has a COVID-19 hotline at (877) 215-8336.