How does coronavirus testing work?

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020
How does coronavirus testing work?
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How does coronavirus testing work?

The latest information about coronavirus arrives throughout the day, in push alerts, newspaper headlines and at the top of television newscasts. When the reports are about more coronavirus cases in North Carolina, some people wonder if they're potential patients.

"We are working with the health care community across the state to expand sample collection sites for patients who might have COVID-19." said Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina's Secretary of Health and Human Services, during a news conference on Tuesday.

Dr. Kim McDonald, the Wake County Health Director, says "it's important to remember that for the general public, chances of contracting COVID-19 are relatively low. However, if you are worried and have traveled to an affected area or have been in close contact with an infected person, you should call your healthcare provider."

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How Testing Works

There are currently two paths for COVID-19 testing in Wake County.

1. The Wake County Public Health Division will only test contacts of COVID-19 positive individuals and people who have been identified through the federal government's screening at airports as having traveled to a high-risk area. Primary healthcare providers should not refer patients to the health department for testing.

Once a person is identified as coming into close contact with someone who is positive for COVID-19 or as having traveled to a high-risk area, our public health team calls them and assesses their symptoms over the phone, using a set list of questions. Based on their responses, our team determines what the appropriate next steps include.

2. A person has symptoms and contacts their primary healthcare provider or an urgent care center. Only seriously ill people who need hospitalization should be referred to a hospital for coronavirus testing.

If a patient is exhibiting symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath and there is a clinical suspicion of COVID-19 infection, the healthcare provider should test the patient for flu.

If the flu test results are positive, they do not need to be tested for COVID-19.

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If the flu test results are negative and the healthcare provider suspects COVID-19, the doctor should recommend the patient get tested for the coronavirus. The patient should self-quarantine at home until receiving the results.

The patient should then be tested for COVID-19 by the healthcare provider at their facility. However, some urgent care centers or primary care providers may not be testing for COVID-19.

University and commercial labs are checking samples obtained by doctors, to determine if symptoms reported by some sickened people are flu or COVID-19.

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"We are working with our private and public partners to expand sample collection for doctors to refer someone to an alternative, non-hospital based site," said Dr. Cohen.

One of those partners, LabCorp, is performing tests at a lab in Burlington. A spokesman told ABC News: "We are also looking at the possibility of expanding the testing to other labs."

If the results from LabCorp are positive, Wake County public health staff will contact the patient, inform them of the results, place them in isolation and gather information on their movements before and after becoming symptomatic to gauge their risk of transmitting the disease to others. The person will not be let out of isolation until they test negative for COVID-19 twice, but the tests must be conducted more than 24 hours apart.

If the results are negative, the patient may be released from quarantine and can follow up as needed for additional care.

Hospital information

UNC Health

UNC Health patients with coronavirus symptoms should call their primary care provider's office to determine if and where they should be tested for COVID-19. This may result in a referral to a UNC Health Respiratory Diagnostic Center or to a UNC Virtual Care center.

UNC Health patients can also call a UNC Health Helpline at 1-888-850-2684 before visiting a doctor's office or an urgent care location. Please note: This HelpLine is experiencing high volumes of calls.

The current hours for UNC Health Respiratory Diagnostic Centers are 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. - 12 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

WakeMed Heath & Hospitals

WakeMed opened its first Respiratory Diagnostic Center (RDC) on March 16. The WakeMed RDC is an appointment-only site for patients ages 18 and older who meet testing criteria. Patients must first call the WakeMed Health Help Line at 919-350-5200, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., to connect with a provider for an initial phone evaluation. Only those who meet the criteria will be scheduled for an appointment for COVID-19 and flu testing.

WakeMed Virtual Urgent Care can also help evaluate COVID-19 risks, assess symptoms and provide support by video to help you find the most appropriate level of care while minimizing exposure.

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