COVID-19 testing: What you need to know
Getting a COVID-19 test is one of the most important ways to help stop the spread of COVID-19. When you know you have the disease, you can make the best decisions to limit transmission to others.
COVID-19 tests detect the active virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). There are two types of tests that can detect a COVID-19 infection: the antigen test and the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test.
Types of COVID-19 tests
An antigen test detects proteins on the surface of the virus called antigens.
Antigen tests provide rapid results, typically within 15-30 minutes, and can be done at home. They are less sensitive to active COVID-19 virus than a PCR test. During times when there are a lot of people with COVID-19 (like this omicron surge), a positive antigen test is very likely to be COVID-19, but a negative antigen test is less reassuring since false negative results are more common with antigen tests.
Antigen tests are most accurate when used within a few days of the start of symptoms or at least 5 days after exposure. This is the timeframe when the largest amount of virus is present in your body.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test
A PCR test detects the presence of the actual virus’s genetic material. These tests can be collected through a nasal or saliva test. PCR is the most reliable and most accurate type of COVID-19 test.
A PCR test is analyzed by a medical professional and can take several days to get a result. UI Hospitals & Clinics provides COVID-19 results within 24-36 hours.
When to get tested
Knowing when to get a COVID-19 test can be tricky. Depending on whether you have symptoms or were exposed to someone with COVID-19, the ideal time to get a COVID-19 test may be different.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms you should get tested as soon as possible. Symptoms may be very mild, especially if you’re vaccinated.
If you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, you should be tested at least 5 days after the exposure.
Where to get tested
If you need a COVID-19 test, complete our MyChart self-checker to determine your next steps.
In general, COVID-19 tests are available at the following locations.
Health care providers:
Most health care providers, including UI Health Care, provide PCR tests.
Test Iowa kits provide free of charge saliva PCR tests to the community at multiple locations including UI QuickCare and UI Urgent Care clinics. Learn more about how and where to get a Test Iowa kit.
At-home antigen tests are available online or at local pharmacies. Households can order up to four COVID-19 tests free of charge online. These tests will be shipped to you through the U.S. Postal Service.
Local pharmacies may have at-home antigen tests and/or Test Iowa kits available for pick-up.