Health Care

‘How do I get tested?’ and other coronavirus questions

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With two positive cases of COVID-19 in the state, health officials are preparing for a flood of requests for tests. 

The second case was confirmed Wednesday -- a man in his 70s who is hospitalized in Chittenden County.

As of Wednesday, the state Department of Health was monitoring 215 people for symptoms and 62 Vermonters have tested negative for the coronavirus. 

Experts advice? Keep calm, and consider the impact of your actions on others before buying out all of a store’s toilet paper or rushing into the emergency room for a test, said Tim Lahey, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center, who’s helping to oversee the hospital’s coronavirus response. Avoiding unnecessary panic will ensure that those who actually need supplies and medical care can access it.

“Amid all of the understandable concerns, it's important for the general public to take care of each other,” Lahey said. “It’s not good idea for people to buy a bunch of masks or Purell or to flood clinics with visits if they can be avoided.”

[Check out other FAQs on how to protect yourself, testing and movement restrictions, and science behind the spread of the illness.]

OK, but I have a nasty cough. Do I need to be tested? 

Stay home, self-isolate, and call your health care provider. That’s the mantra from state health officials, according to department spokesperson Ben Truman. 

Doctors and government officials are urging Vermonters to consider their risk before rushing to get a test. First ask yourself: Have you been exposed to anyone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus? Have you traveled to a country that’s experienced an outbreak? 

If you haven’t traveled to a high-risk area, a cough or slight fever alone won’t merit a test. Doctors would likely call you in for a test in the case of more severe symptoms, such as trouble breathing. Tests are also more likely, and the results more useful, for those who are vulnerable — those who are over 60, have asthma or a respiratory illness. 

The hospital won’t test everyone who’s curious, according to Lahey. 

“We’re prioritizing people who are sick and really need that testing and making sure we don’t use those resources on people who really do not need to know,” he said.

When in doubt, call your primary care doctor, who will ask questions to determine the likelihood you were exposed. Otherwise, officials recommend commonsense precautions: washing hands, staying home from work or school if sick, and avoiding close contact with other people.

How does a coronavirus test work? 

The tests themselves are similar to a flu swab. A nurse takes a swab of the back of the throat, nose or saliva, and sends the swab to the state Department of Health lab in Colchester. The lab then tests the specimen for the coronavirus the same day. The state lab has the staffing capacity to test seven days a week, up to 78 tests a day. 

A test that comes back positive is considered “a presumed positive.” It’s then sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation. 

How long will it take to get results? 

You’ll hear in 24 to 48 hours after the state test. The official CDC results will come back about two days after that. 

But don’t wait for the results to self-isolate; doctors will ask you to stay home as soon as they think you may have coronavirus. 

Will it cost me anything? 

No, all tests ordered by a doctor are free. Last week, Gov. Phil Scott announced that private insurers must cover the full cost of all COVID-19 tests for those who meet the state’s criteria for testing. The federal government will pay for tests for Medicare and Medicaid patients will also be covered. For those without health insurance, the state will absorb the cost of the tests. 

What exactly does self-quarantining mean? How do I decide whether to do it? 

In short, stay home. Don’t go into work, don’t go to the grocery store. If possible, have a family member take a trip to the pharmacy. Wear a mask if you’re going into public. Quarantines typically last 14 days.

If you may have been exposed, err on the side of caution and self-quarantine. When in doubt, ask your doctor. 

How do I avoid infecting my family when I self-quarantine with my family? 

Try social distancing – staying roughly 6 feet away from family members. That’s not always possible. Cough into your sleeve. Throw away used tissues immediately. Clean counters and doorknobs and other surfaces that may have been exposed to the virus. 

Have the infected person use a separate bathroom, if possible. And if family members get COVID symptoms, you know the drill: call your doctor. 

How concerned should I be? 

With the total number infected surpassing 124,000 worldwide, there is cause for concern, said Josh White, chief medical officer for Gifford Medical Center in Randolph. But the biggest cause for concern is panic. 

“That is the number one threat to the health care system right now — the buying up of supplies, the stealing of masks, so on and so forth,” White said. 

One Vermonter had showed up to an emergency room and refused to leave until he got tested for the coronavirus, according to White. A flood of such people seeking tests could affect care of those who have more pressing needs. “That kind of crunch … could be incredibly deleterious to any health care institution,” White said. 

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a health department spokesman misspoke when suggesting people with symptoms should contact the health department. People should call their health care provider instead.

Have a question on the coronavirus? Email it to us and we'll find an answer. Please put COVID-19 QUESTION in the subject line and send questions to [email protected] 

More information:

VTDigger Coronavirus in Vermont

Vermont Department of Health

  • If you have questions about COVID-19: Dial 2-1-1
  • If you are returning from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea or Japan: Call Health Department Epidemiology at 802-863-7240
  • If you are ill, have symptoms (such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing), or are concerned about your health: Call your health care provider

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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