‘Tis the season for a COVID-19 test? Here’s what you need to know.

COVID-19 testing site
A sign about COVID-19 testing is displayed outside a testing site in northwest suburban Wheeling on Dec. 3, 2021. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
COVID-19 testing site
A sign about COVID-19 testing is displayed outside a testing site in northwest suburban Wheeling on Dec. 3, 2021. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

‘Tis the season for a COVID-19 test? Here’s what you need to know.

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It’s that time of year when holiday gatherings abound. Although the season calls for merriment and celebrating with friends and loved ones, the globe is still in a pandemic.

This holiday season may include a COVID-19 test for many people, even if they’re fully vaccinated.

Here are some common questions – and answers – about testing to help you out.

Should I get tested?

Experts say it’s critical to get tested if you start feeling COVID-19 symptoms, which include headache, cough, difficulty breathing and fatigue.

It’s also a good idea to get tested, even if you don’t have symptoms, if you know you’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises testing within seven days of exposure.

Are more people getting tested?

“I do think, in general, tests have been increasing,” said Dr. Nimmi Rajagopal, Cook County Health’s associate chair of family and community medicine. “Our clinics have been doing testing … and we’re seeing an increase in at-home testing.”

Which test should I get?

The two most common tests are the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and the antigen. Both analyze swab samples, usually from your nose, for the virus that causes COVID-19.

PCR tests are done at hospitals, clinics and other locations, and take several days to give results. Antigen tests give results in 30 minutes or less, but they’re considered less accurate. Home kits use antigen testing.

If you want to get tested before a social event, Rajagopal recommends “doing a PCR test a few days before you’re going to see everybody, and then doing an antigen test on the day to be extra cautious. That would give a fairly clear picture of whether you can go visit with others.”

If you attend a gathering and learn later that you were exposed to someone with COVID-19, Rajagopal advises getting a PCR test if you’re not feeling symptoms. But if you’re symptomatic, she recommends staying home and using an antigen test kit.

Rajagopal said PCR results take longer because the test is sent out for analysis. Still, she considers the PCR “a good test for screening, particularly if someone is asymptomatic.”

Home test kits are available at drugstores, and you can buy them without a prescription. A box with two tests typically costs about $25. Swabs, testing solution and instructions are included.

Where can I get tested?

Most health care facilities – hospitals, clinics, doctor offices – and many pharmacies currently offer PCR tests. They usually require an appointment, although some may take walk-ins. Better to check than just show up.

Are tests free?

If you have health insurance, federal law requires your insurer to cover the cost of a test if you’re symptomatic, have been exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case or your doctor orders a test. That’s according to the Chicago Department of Public Health, which has a wide range of information on testing.

If you don’t have health insurance, the CDPH advises you to ask the testing site if it charges a fee. The federal government reimburses sites that offer testing to uninsured people.

Can I get a booster shot at the same place where I get tested?

It depends where you go. Most pharmacies, for example, are scheduling tests and booster shots separately. Check with your preferred test location to see if you can also get a booster during your visit.

Experts recommend that someone who is actively infected with COVID-19 not get a booster at that time.

Most pharmacy website questionnaires ask if you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days. If you have, the pharmacy won’t allow you to schedule a booster appointment (until later).

Will a test show whether I’m infected with the recent omicron variant?

If you test positive for COVID-19, the result doesn’t tell you the variant you have.

The test “is just saying whether someone is positive or negative,” Rajagopal said.

“Delta is still the most predominant variant right now across the country,” she added, but omicron has been detected in the U.S., including in Chicago.

If I’m sick, but don’t have COVID-19, will wearing a mask protect people?

Rajagopal said she’s heard of people who have tested negative for COVID-19, but have cold symptoms and wonder if wearing a mask will protect others they encounter at gatherings.

“People may assume that if they have symptoms, and they mask, they’re not going to pass something on to others,” she said. “But you have to remember, a lot of these other viruses are not just passed by respiratory means. So they can be passed by touching surfaces and things like that.”

Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @adorakn.