Like a lot of parents around the country, one Oak Park dad we heard from has a teenager who went to a rally last week to protest police violence.
He and his wife had agreed their 16- year old daughter could go to the protest if she wore a mask and kept six feet from others.
And while most protesters appeared to be wearing masks, his daughter told him, not everyone did and social distancing was pretty impossible to maintain. So he’s concerned that his daughter might have been exposed to COVID-19 while protesting — and he’s not alone.
“The protests were a giant experiment,” says Dr. Emily Landon, medical director of infection prevention and control for University of Chicago Medicine. “It was a very risky event and over the next few weeks we’ll find out how risky it was.”
And the dad in Oak Park sent in a series of questions asking what his daughter should do. He wondered where someone under 18 could get tested. He also wanted to know how soon she should get the test and if the family should worry about false negatives.
He says he’s had a hard time trying to find those answers on his own. So Curious City checked in with local public health experts to find some answers.
Should I get my teen tested?
Yes, that’s the guidance from Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike who made the recommendation last week.
“I urge anyone who recently attended a rally, protest, or other mass gathering to get tested for COVID-19 so we can identify any cases early,” Ezike said in a statement. “If there are known cases, we can make sure those people are quarantined and not exposing other individuals.”
When should someone get tested?
This is a trickier issue and research is ongoing.
“The question of when to get tested after an exposure has not been answered,” says Dr. Emily Landon. “Typically, if someone is truly exposed to COVID-19, it’s going to take several days to develop symptoms or have the infection. Most likely five or six days after exposure.”
So general guidance suggests waiting to test at least five days after exposure, or whenever you start to show symptoms.
How do I get my child tested?
Call your primary care physician to find the best center for you. Or, Chicago residents can go to the City of Chicago testing website to book an appointment. You just need to answer a list of questions and the city will email you a link to sign up for testing at one of six drive-up testing sites on the South and West sides. Parents of children under 18 simply need to give their permission on the site for their child’s information to be shared with the City of Chicago.
People outside Chicago can find testing information at the Illinois Department of Public Health testing site or call its hotline at 800-889-3931.
What about false negatives?
False negative results can be an issue depending on the timing of the test, the quality of the sample extracted and the type of test used. So Dr. Jennifer Layden, chief medical officer for the city’s department of public health, says to be cautious.
“A negative test five days after exposure should not give you confidence that you are not infected because it can take up to 14 days to develop symptoms,” she says. And infected patients are most likely to get a positive result when they are displaying symptoms.
Will they let my child get tested again after a possible false negative?
Dr. Layden suggests talking to your primary care physician about repeat testing. Each institution and insurance company has its own guidance on repeat tests, and physicians often need to evaluate the rationale for additional tests, like worsening symptoms.
“Retesting is often not the best use of resources,” Dr. Layden says. “And it doesn’t change our guidance which is to stay quarantined.”
What should families do in the meantime?
“Even if you test negative you can’t be 100 percent certain, so I would quarantine anyway,” says Dr. Emily Landon.
The Chicago Department of Public Health recommends that anyone who went to one of the protests or other large gatherings self isolate at home and wear a mask around family members, or at the very least avoid coming into contact with those over 60 or with underlying health conditions. And, if they do leave the home they should wear a mask and social distance, even if they feel no symptoms.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexandra Salomon contributed additional reporting for this story.