Get the right test at the right time

Testing for COVID-19 at the right time

Tips for using COVID testing to make visiting safer

Right now, staying home remains the best way to keep from inadvertently spreading COVID to those we care about. 

Despite this, we may need, for a variety of good and sufficient reasons, to come into close contact with someone outside our “bubble.” And we need to know how to keep ourselves and each other safe while doing so. 

This article aims to make this process simpler by illustrating how strategic COVID testing can help us stop spreading the virus and make connecting in person as safe as possible for everyone involved.

COVID testing alone is not enough

Some may think, cool, we’ll all just get tested on the way to the party. But a negative test result is NOT a “Get out of jail free” card. It is not a 100% guarantee that you are not infected with COVID. 

That’s because a diagnostic test is a snapshot of the past. What the test actually tells you is whether you were infected with COVID three to seven days earlier. And your actions before and after testing have a big impact on how accurate it is.

Reducing the risks of visiting with those outside your bubble takes the right combination of timing, isolation, and testing. We can’t control testing inaccuracies like false positives or negatives, but we can control how we communicate and how we isolate. It’s important that everyone you’ll be visiting with follows these steps to the best of their ability.

Get the right kind of test

  • A molecular test (also called a PCR test) detects viral genetic material in your system to diagnose current infection. This is the most accurate type of test, and the one to get—if you can access an affordable test with a rapid turnaround time.
  • An antigen test detects specific proteins from the virus to diagnose current infection. These tests are rapid but are less accurate than molecular tests. Use this kind if you can’t find or afford a PCR test, or if the turnaround time for results is more than three days.
  • The antibody test detects proteins produced in your body in response to infection to show whether you’ve previously been infected. But previous infection isn’t a free pass either. Even though previous infection may confer some degree of immunity, there are also documented cases of reinfection. We don’t recommend using an antibody test to confirm your status.

What if you can’t get tested?

If you can’t access fast, affordable testing with quick results, the next best thing is for all parties to monitor for symptoms while isolating for 10 days. The CDC has recently lowered the requirement for self-isolation without a test from 14 to 10 days

But if time is of the essence, with a little planning and communication you can reduce your wait time by using the testing protocol laid out here.

Understanding the incubation period.

Timing is everything, so let’s keep it simple. This graph explains the optimal timeline for testing.

Infographic of optimal COVID-19 testing period
  • If you get tested too early, there might not be enough virus in your system for the test to detect, which can produce a false negative result, along with a false sense of security.
  • It’s best to take a PCR test at least five days after the last possible exposure. That means isolating for at least five days before you get tested. See the next section for more on isolation.
  • Continue isolating until you get your results. That’s because getting testing doesn’t prevent you from becoming infected five minutes after the test.

Isolate before and after the test

For safety, you’ll need to isolate for at least five days before your test, and afterwards until you get your results.   

Isolation means limiting exposure to others as though you were infected. This means minimizing all contact, even masked, with anyone not in your visiting group. It means avoiding in-person socializing, work, shopping, and other contact as much as possible.

Here’s the protocol

Here’s the protocol to lower the risk of visiting. Everyone participating in the visit should follow these same steps.

  1. Begin isolating at the same time at least a week before the visit.
  2. Isolate for five days.
  3. Get PCR tests on day 5.
  4. Continue to isolate until all parties receive negative results.
  5. Have your visit. For greatest safety, continue to use COVID precautions such as masking and distancing.
  6. If you’re traveling, the CDC recommends you get tested again three to five days after your trip AND stay home for seven days.
  • Even if you test negative, stay home and isolate for the full seven days.
  • If you don’t get tested, it’s safest to stay home and isolate for 10 days.


  • If you can’t access PCR testing with results in less than three days, you might as well just isolate for the full 10 to 14 days, as recommended by the CDC. 
  • By combining isolation and testing,you can reduce that isolation to around seven days.

We’re all learning the complicated dance of becoming more proficient at communication and honesty while analyzing the spectrums of risk and exposure. 

Some of us work essential public-facing jobs, others might live communally or transitionally. Not everyone has the ability to isolate in the same way or has access to accurate and affordable testing. We are all in the same storm with different shaped boats and skills to keep them afloat. 

Even with all our differences, most of us just want to do the right thing, which is keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Like any new dance, the more we practice, the easier it becomes second nature. Our current task is to weave honesty and direct communication into all of our interactions to navigate this new landscape of risk and exposure.

Garrett Christopher

Garrett Christopher is a writer, artist and plant geek living in Portland OR. He helps brands and businesses create engaging, clear, and creative content. Omnivorous with a taste for the odd and captivating he writes about current events, the arts and culture.

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