Thing to Know: COVID-19 Tests

Published on: Sep 17, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
A registered nurse puts a nasal swab into a tube held by another nurse, both wearing gloves and protective gowns, after doing a nasal swab on a patient in their car where they are conducting drive through coronavirus / COVID-19 testing. Getty Images

The delta variant is still causing spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths across the US. Since it became the dominant strain in July, it has hit states with large unvaccinated populations (like Mississippi and Louisiana) hard and left hospitals swamped. The country is counting nearly 1,900 new cases a day — the most since January. Not surprisingly, this has led to an increase in COVID-19 testing — with one to two million Americans getting tested every day. And since 2020, COVID-19 tests have evolved. Now, there are many types that can be used for different purposes. And we’re breaking down what you need to know about them.

PS...Here are the CDC’s recs for when to get tested.

Here Are the Types of COVID-19 Tests Available...

Molecular tests (which include the NAAT test and the PCR test) check if you have the virus by looking for the coronavirus’ genetic material in your testing sample. 

  • Process: A doctor or medical professional will use a nasal or throat swab to get a sample.

  • Accuracy: About 95% correct.

  • Turnaround: Results come back between 45 minutes and three days (subject to change based on demand).

  • Costs: Usually free across the country (regardless of insurance) if you take it at a drive-thru or walk-in clinic, and some pharmacies. But that’s not always the case at a doctor’s office or urgent care. 

Antigen tests (aka rapid tests) check if you currently have COVID-19 by looking for antigens. This can be a specific protein or one of the spikes the virus uses to latch on to our cells.

  • Process: A doctor or medical professional will use a nasal swab to get a sample.

  • Accuracy: Rapid tests are less reliable than molecular tests. They correctly produce positive results about 72% of the time in people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. 

  • Turnaround: Expect results back in 15 to 30 minutes — hence rapid tests.

  • Costs: Similar to molecular tests, these can be free at federal and state-run testing centers or at bigger pharmacies (Walgreens, CVS, etc). But you might have to pay out of pocket at private clinics.

Antibody tests check to see if you previously had the virus by looking for proteins created by an immune system response (aka antibodies) to the coronavirus. These tests do not determine if you have a current infection because your body starts producing antibodies 1-3 weeks after you get the virus.

  • Process: A doctor or medical professional will take a blood sample by using an IV or by pricking your finger. 

  • Accuracy: 30-90%. Yes, that is a big range. And it’s dependent on when you take your test. Remember: The longer you wait to take the test after being infected with COVID, the more time your body has to create antibodies.  

  • Turnaround: Expect results in about 1-3 days.

  • Costs: State and local health departments determine the cost of antibody tests. But your insurance might cover the cost at your doctor’s office, so call before you go.

At-home tests are mostly rapid tests. But can include molecular and antibody tests — which allow test takers to take their sample at home and then send it to a lab for processing. The tests are sold online or at places like pharmacies and supermarkets. Your doctor can also order one for you.

  • Process: Depending on the type of test, you either send your sample to a lab or use an accompanied testing device from the kit you bought to test your sample.

  • Accuracy: At-home rapid tests are about 72% accurate in people with symptoms, and about 58% accurate in people without symptoms.

  • Turnaround: Anywhere from 24 to 72 hours after a lab receives it. Or 15-30 minutes at home.

  • Costs: Anywhere from $20 to $140. 

Note: Watch out for fake test kits being sold online by checking if the product you’re using is included in the FDA’s approved devices database.


Vaccines have given us some hope that an end to the pandemic is coming. Meanwhile, testing can help keep people informed about their health — while also saving lives and helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Skimm'd by Sana Dadani, Maria McCallen, and Kamini Ramdeen

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