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Should you get tested for coronavirus? It depends, say medical experts

Tests are run in the Northwell Health Lab

Tests are run in the Northwell Health Lab on Mar. 3, 2020 in Lake Success. Credit: Howard Schnapp

We talked to experts about who and who shouldn’t get tested for the coronavirus COVID-19. The following is a list of common questions, and answers from experts.

What is a COVID-19 test?

One swab is inserted into the nose, reaching back to the upper part of the throat called the nasopharynx, and another sample is obtained by swabbing the back of the throat, said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, attending physician of infectious diseases at Northwell Health.

What happens after a health care provider takes these swab samples?

They are taken to a laboratory. On Long Island, Northwell Health has been doing manual testing of about 90 samples a day at its Lake Success lab since Sunday, when it received federal and state authorization to do so, said Dr. Deborah Schron, an associate medical director of the lab.

“We’ve been running at capacity,” she said.

On Tuesday, Northwell received permission to do semi-automated testing, although it will take a few days to ensure the lab’s machines are ready for the testing, Northwell spokesman Jason Molinet said.

“We hope to go to hundreds of samples” once that testing starts, with the plan to move to even faster fully automated testing after that, Schron said

Stony Brook University Hospital and Catholic Health Services hope to begin testing on Long Island in the coming weeks, and the Mount Sinai and NYU Langone health systems, each with hospitals on Long Island, are preparing for testing in their Manhattan labs, officials with those providers said.

If I have a fever and cough, should I ask for a test?

Remember that it’s still flu season, which can stretch into May, said Dr. Susan Donelan, an infectious-diseases attending physician at Stony Brook University Hospital. Flu and COVID-19 symptoms — such as fever and cough — are similar, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s when you have a fever that doesn’t go away, you have a cough that’s getting worse, and you’re recognizing that you’re getting into trouble with your underlying [health] condition — that warrants a call to your physician’s practice,” she said.

Shortness of breath is another red flag, whether for COVID-19 or a serious case of the flu, Hirsch said.

People who were in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or traveled to one of several countries with an especially high number of cases are among those who are at higher risk, Donelan said.

How can the health care provider tell if I have the flu, COVID-19 or something else?

Before a COVID-19 test, tests should first be given for the flu and other respiratory conditions, said Dr. William Engellenner, medical director for laboratory services at Catholic Health Services of Long Island.

If you test negative for all of those, “Then you immediately become a candidate for testing for this novel coronavirus,” he said.

Even that doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19, said Dr. Barry Rosenthal, chairman of NYU Winthrop’s emergency department. Some of the people who tested negative at NYU Winthrop for COVID-19 already had tested negative for other respiratory conditions, he said.

Why not go in for a coronavirus test just for peace of mind?

Labs have the ability to perform more tests than they did just a few days ago, but there are still only a limited number that can be done, and the priority has to be with those who are at highest risk for serious illness, Donelan said.

“Until nationally, we have a widespread, unfettered ability to test everyone, we’re going to have to be mindful of the fact that there may be people who have mild illness who are not really able to be tested,” she said.

Can I get tested in the emergency room?

That’s not a good idea, Engellenner said.

“You run the risk of infecting other individuals who may be quite ill in the emergency room as well as health care providers who are actively caring for other patients,” he said.

Donelan said that if you can’t get an appointment to see your doctor, and “you are feeling that things are really going south, you’re worried, you can tell you’re deteriorating, you should seek care” in an emergency room or urgent-care center and wear a surgical mask, which is available at Stony Brook and other health care facilities.