PCR Test-Specific FAQs

What is a false negative COVID-19 PCR test result?

The test can show a negative result even if you are infected with COVID-19*. This can happen if:

  • It is too soon for the test to detect the virus.
  • There was a problem with your sample or the test itself.

No test is 100% accurate at all times.

  • If your results are negative and you’re having symptoms, continue to follow isolation precautions and ask your healthcare provider if you need further testing.
  • If your results are negative and you don’t have any symptoms, continue to monitor for any symptoms up to 14 days after your last possible exposure.

*Although the possibility is low, a false negative result should be considered if you have had recent exposure to the virus along with symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

What is a false positive COVID-19 PCR test result?

This test can show a positive result even if you are not infected with COVID-19. This can happen if there was a problem with your sample or the test itself. These tests have been designed to minimize false positive results. If you are concerned about the accuracy of your results, ask your healthcare provider if you need further testing.

What does an indeterminate COVID-19 PCR test result mean?

Indeterminate means that the test did not detect a clear positive or negative result. It was unable to accurately detect COVID-19.

Your result could be indeterminate if:

  • You are infected with COVID-19 but the test was done too early to detect the virus, OR
  • There was a problem with the sample you provided or the test itself.

It is recommended that you get retested or see a healthcare provider to discuss your result and confirm next steps. To get retested, please directly contact the company from which you ordered the test or ask your healthcare provider about testing recommendations.

When can a COVID-19 PCR test detect the virus?

A PCR test shows if you’re currently infected and can spread COVID-19 to others. It may take several days for the virus to be detected, so the test may not identify the virus if you were recently infected.

If I have a positive PCR test result, can I pass the virus to others?

A PCR test shows if you’re currently infected and can spread COVID-19 to others. However, it is possible to have a positive PCR test result for up to 3 months after infection. Available data indicates that individuals with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 remain infectious no longer than 10 days after symptoms start. How long someone remains infectious varies by individual and depends on the severity of illness.To prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect people in your home and community, follow ​these guidelines​ provided by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Return to Work Questions

When can I go back to work?

The decision to return to work should be determined by you and your employer based on a number of factors. Contact your employer for guidance about returning to work. Be sure to continue to follow federal, state, and local government guidance regarding social distancing and isolation.

If I can stop isolating, does that mean I can go back to work?

Whether or not you can return to work depends on a number of factors. Contact your employer for guidance about returning to work.

What is the process for returning to work?

Contact your employer for guidance about returning to work.

What are the risks of going back to work too soon?

If you go back to work too soon, you risk transmitting COVID-19 to others or becoming infected with COVID-19 yourself.

  • Transmitting to others: If you’ve been infected with COVID-19, you can transmit the infection to your coworkers or customers. Many people who are infected have no symptoms. Only a PCR test can determine if you have an active infection.
  • Becoming infected: Coworkers or customers who have COVID-19 can transmit the virus to you. There is a risk of becoming infected if you have had close contact with an infected person (being within six feet of them for more than a few minutes within the past 14 days).

What steps can I take to protect myself at work?

Follow your employer’s guidance regarding ways to protect yourself and others from becoming infected with COVID-19.

In general, some protective measures include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Wearing a face mask or cloth face covering
  • Avoiding touching your face
  • Using gloves
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces
  • Staying more than 6 feet away from others
  • Your employer may also have procedures in place to check your temperature regularly.

What does it mean to have a safe work environment?

Employers are responsible for maintaining a safe and healthy work environment for their employees. These duties include:

  • Ensuring the building is well ventilated to provide acceptable indoor air quality.
  • Regularly checking air filters to ensure they are within service life and appropriately installed.
  • Following the ​CDC’s Guidance for Building Water Systems​.
  • Ensuring adequate supplies for employees, customers, and visitors so they may clean their hands and cover their coughs and sneezes (i.e., offering soap and water, hand sanitizer, tissues, and no-touch trash cans).
  • Performing routine cleaning by following the ​CDC’s Guidance on Cleaning and Disinfecting​ .

Additionally, your employer should encourage safety practices that adhere to state and local guidance and minimize your risks at work. These include:

  • Encouraging hand hygiene and using non-contact methods of greeting.
  • Hanging informational posters at the entrance of the workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen.
  • Directing employees to visit ​ CDC’s Coughing and Sneezing Etiquette ​and ​Clean Hands webpage for more information.
  • Encouraging or requiring the use of face masks or cloth coverings.
  • Holding meetings in open, well-ventilated space that maintain social distancing guidelines.
  • Adjusting, cancelling, or postponing in-person meetings, or encouraging videoconferencing or teleconferencing.
  • Limiting non-essential travel, and advising employees who travel that they must take additional precautions and preparations.

Please visit the ​ OSHA guidelines website​ for more information.

Frequently Asked Questions of COVID-19

What is coronavirus disease (COVID-19)?

Coronavirus disease (also called COVID-19) is an infection caused by SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus), one of the most recently discovered types of coronaviruses. Those who have this disease may or may not experience symptoms, which range from mild to severe.

How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 spreads easily from person-to-person, even when an infected person is not showing symptoms. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, droplets containing the virus go into the air. These droplets can be inhaled or land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, exposing them to the virus.

People may also be exposed to COVID-19 by touching their eyes, nose, or mouth after touching a surface with the virus on it. Although this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, researchers are still learning more about COVID-19.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after being exposed to the virus. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Cases of COVID-19 range from mild to severe. Some people who are infected don’t have any symptoms and don’t feel sick. Most people have mild symptoms. Visit the CDC website for more information about symptoms.

Who is at high risk of getting very sick?

Severe cases are more likely to occur in the following people:

  • Older adults (the older you are, the higher your risk for severe illness from COVID-19).
  • People of any age with underlying medical conditions.

It is important to note that serious illness can also occur in young, healthy adults. If you have questions about your risk, talk to your healthcare provider. For more information, you can also visit the CDC website.

Am I at risk of getting COVID-19?

COVID-19 is very contagious. The risk of getting COVID-19 depends on many factors, including close contact with people who have symptoms of COVID-19. It is important to follow your federal, state, and local government guidance to protect yourself from exposure.

How is COVID-19 treated?

There is currently no treatment for COVID-19. Not all patients with COVID-19 will require medical attention, and most people recover within 2 weeks without any specific treatment. For severe cases, hospitalization and respiratory support may be required. For mild cases, treatment focuses on managing symptoms.

How can I protect myself from getting COVID-19?

The best way to protect yourself is to avoid situations in which you may be exposed to the virus. Everyday actions can help protect you and prevent the spread of respiratory diseases such as COVID-19.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Restrict any activities outside your home and maintain a safe distance (around 6 feet) between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This includes avoiding crowded areas, shopping malls, religious gatherings, public transportation, etc.
  • Wear simple cloth face coverings in public settings (like grocery stores and pharmacies) where social distancing is difficult, especially in areas where COVID-19 is spreading.
  • Stay home when you are sick, unless you are seeking medical care.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces (including tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water aren’t available. Always wash hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

What can I do to prevent spreading COVID-19?

If you believe you may have COVID-19 or test positive for COVID-19 and have mild symptoms, the following steps can help prevent the disease from spreading to others:

  • Stay home ​except to get medical care
    • Take care of yourself by getting rest and staying hydrated
    • Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen, may help you feel better
    • Avoid public areas, including work and school
    • Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis
    • Stay in touch with your healthcare provider
  • Separate yourself from other people
    • Stay in a separate room and away from other people and pets in your home
    • If possible, use a separate bathroom
    • If you need to be around other people or animals, wear a face covering
  • Cover your nose and mouth
    • If you are sick, wear a face covering when you are around other people or pets
    • Use a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw away used tissues in a lined trash can
  • Clean your hands often
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, ​especially after being in a public place, blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, going to the bathroom, or before eating or preparing food
    • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, mouth, and other people with unwashed hands
  • Do not share
    • Do not share dishes, cups/glasses, eating utensils, towels, bedding, or electronics with other people or pets
    • After using personal items, they should be washed thoroughly with soap and water or put in the dishwasher
  • Clean all "high-touch" surfaces every day
    • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces in your separate "sick room" and bathroom
    • If possible, wear disposable gloves while cleaning
    • Someone else should clean and disinfect surfaces in common areas
    • If a caregiver or someone else needs to clean and disinfect, it should be done on an as-needed basis
    • Caregivers should wear a face covering and disposable gloves
    • Clean and disinfect areas that might have blood, stool, or bodily fluids on them

When should I seek medical care?

If you think you have been exposed, it is important to closely monitor for symptoms. Seek medical attention immediately if you develop severe symptoms, especially if you experience:

  • Severe trouble breathing (such as being unable to talk without gasping for air)
  • Continuous pain or pressure in your chest
  • Feeling confused or having difficulty waking up
  • Blue-colored lips or face
  • Any other emergency signs or symptoms

If you seek medical attention, be sure to call ahead before visiting the facility. This will help the facility keep other people from possibly getting infected or exposed.

  • Tell any healthcare provider that you may have COVID-19.
  • Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.
  • Put on a facemask before you enter any healthcare facility.

What is social distancing?

Social distancing, also called “physical distancing,” means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home. It includes:

  • Staying at least 6 feet (2 meters) from other people
  • Not gathering in groups
  • Staying out of crowded places and avoiding mass gatherings

Social distancing is one of the best ways to avoid being exposed and to help slow the spread of the virus. It is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.

Be sure to continue to follow federal, state, and local government guidance regarding social distancing.

Should I self-quarantine or self-isolate? How does it work?

If you think you may have been exposed to COVID-19, it is very important to stay home and limit your interaction with others in your household and in public. If you have previously tested positive for COVID-19, you do not need to quarantine or get tested again for up to 3 months, as long as you do not develop symptoms.

  • If you have not been tested but may have been exposed to COVID-19, self-monitoring and self-quarantine is recommended to see if you get sick.
  • If you have tested positive for COVID-19, self-isolation is recommended so that you do not pass the virus to others

If you believe you have symptoms of COVID-19 or that you have been exposed to the virus, you should consult your place of work for specific guidance about whether to stay home or continue working. You should adhere to recommendations set forth by your employer or the department of health, as they may differ from the CDC’s guidelines.

What’s the difference between quarantine and isolation?

Isolation and quarantine are both ways to limit your interaction with others to prevent the spread of disease.

  • Isolation is separating individuals with COVID-19 from people who are not sick. Individuals are separated for a period of time until they are no longer infectious.
  • Quarantine is separating individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 but haven’t been tested. They are separated for a brief period of time (14 days after possible exposure) to see if they develop symptoms.

Is there a difference between stopping isolation vs. stopping quarantine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines about this may at first seem confusing. These guidelines are:

  • Those who have been infected with COVID-19 should isolate. They may be able to stop isolating once symptoms have improved, and it has been at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared. Some symptoms such as loss of taste or smell may last for weeks or months and should not delay ending isolation. Those who have never had symptoms may be able to stop isolating 10 days after testing. However, those who had severe illness from COVID-19, or people with a weakened immune system, may need to isolate longer than 10 days or may require testing to determine when they can be around others.
  • Those who have been possibly exposed to COVID-19 should quarantine. They may be able to stop quarantining if they don’t develop symptoms, and it has been at least 14 days after possible exposure. However, those who’ve been possibly exposed to COVID-19 but have already had COVID-19 in the last 3 months, recovered, and do not have symptoms, do not need to quarantine.

This means that it’s possible for a person diagnosed with COVID-19 to stop isolation before someone possibly exposed can stop quarantining.

When can I stop in-home isolation?

If you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, please check with your primary healthcare provider or local health department to help determine when it’s right to stop isolation. Typically this is done when fever and symptoms improve and 10 days have passed. Some symptoms, such as loss of taste or smell, may last for weeks or months and should not delay ending isolation. If you do not have symptoms, you may be able to stop isolating 10 days after your test was performed. Be sure to continue to follow federal, state, and local government guidance regarding social distancing and isolation. For more information, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Can someone who has had COVID-19 become infected again?

Reinfection with COVID-19 has not been confirmed in any individual that has recovered. Whether an individual can be reinfected remains unknown and is under investigation. A positive PCR test result during the 90 days after illness started is most likely from the initial infection rather than reinfection. Visit the ​CDC website​ for further information.