Everything you ever wanted to know about COVID-19 PCR testing
Sunday 1 August 2021
This article was written during the Queensland response to the COVID-19 pandemic and reflects the information available at the date of publication. Please check the Australian Department of Health COVID-19 webpage for updated information and current health advice regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations in Queensland.
A big part of Queensland’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been testing people who may have the virus. Testing is such an important part of our response because it helps people who do have COVID-19 to get treatment when they need it. It means we can isolate them from others to help stop the spread of the virus. We can use contact tracing to get in touch with people they may have already been in contact with and let them know if they need to self-quarantine.
With all the focus on testing, you might have some questions about how it works. Where do you get a COVID-19 test, how does it work, who should be tested and what are our next steps? We’ve answered these questions and more in this blog post.
Can I get tested for COVID-19?
In Queensland, anyone who has any COVID-19 symptoms, no matter how mild, should get tested immediately. Symptoms include a fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose, fatigue, diarrhoea, vomiting or nausea, and loss of smell or taste. It doesn’t matter if you have just one of these symptoms or a group of them, or whether you feel really sick or just a little unwell – if you’ve got any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately to get tested. Before your appointment, please call ahead and tell them about your symptoms so they can prepare for your visit.
What’s it like to have a COVID-19 test done?
The standard COVID-19 test involves collecting nasal (inside your nose) and throat swabs, and/or sputum (mucus coughed up). This means the doctor or nurse doing your test will place a swab on a thin stick in the back of your throat and 2-3cm up into your nose. Or if you’re coughing up mucus, they’ll get you to cough into a collection container. These samples are then sent to a laboratory for testing.
Does the COVID-19 test hurt?
The COVID-19 test shouldn’t be painful, but it can be uncomfortable – there’s a reason you don’t normally put things up your nose! It’s very quick though, so even if it feels a bit weird, it will only last a couple of seconds. If you find that the testing is really hurting you, you should tell the doctor or nurse performing the test straight away. It can also help to tell them if you’re feeling a bit nervous beforehand, so they can help you feel more at ease.
My child has to get tested for COVID-19 – how do I prepare them for that?
COVID-19 tests are done in the same way for children as they are for adults.
Having your child tested for COVID-19 doesn’t need to be traumatic. You can help them feel calm by explaining to them what’s going to happen and why. Let them know that the staff will be wearing gowns, gloves and masks to keep everyone healthy. Tell them that they’ll put a little stick with a soft end in their nose and mouth, and that it won’t hurt but might feel funny. If they’re into that kind of thing, they might be fascinated to know that the doctor or nurse is testing their boogers!
Just like when they get needles or scrape their knee, a big part of how a child feels and behaves when they’re getting a COVID-19 test comes down to how the adult they’re with is feeling and behaving. If you’re really nervous about their test (or your own!) they’ll probably pick up on that. It might help to take some deep breaths together before you go in and to schedule a fun ‘reward’ after the test like a special dinner or movie at home (your child will need to isolate until their symptoms have resolved).
If your child has sensitivities around being touched or often gets scared or aggravated in a medical setting, let the staff know before you bring them in so they can be well prepared to work with your child in a way that keeps them calm and happy.
If I have a test, do I have to isolate?
You will have to isolate after being tested. The nurse or doctor you have seen may decide you need to be isolated more formally in hospital if you are very unwell. This decision will depend on your condition and risk of your infecting others. You should ask the clinician about isolation when you are sent for your test.
What happens if my test result is positive?
If the result is positive, you will receive a call from a public health unit which will tell you what to do next. You will generally need to go to a hospital. Some people who have mild illness may be admitted to Hospital in the Home Service, which provides the same quality of care you would receive in hospital but in your home or another selected location.
You can read more about what happens when you test positive to COVID-19 in our blog, ‘I have COVID-19 – now what?’
What happens if my test result is negative?
If the result is negative, your doctor or the clinic that tested you will let you know. If you have been told by the doctor or clinic to isolate until the result is available, they can provide further advice about what to do next. Otherwise you should stay home until your symptoms have resolved.
What if my test result is negative but I have been given a quarantine notice?
If you have been issued with a notice telling you to quarantine because you’ve been in contact with someone who does have COVID-19 or you’ve returned from overseas travel or from a COVID-19 hotspot in Australia, you must stay in quarantine until the end date written on the notice, even if you get a negative result. This is because you may still develop COVID-19 infection up until the end of the quarantine period.
I’ve had my COVID-19 test but don’t have a result yet – what should I do?
Be prepared to isolate if tested until you get your results. Test results occasionally take several days to come back.
If you become more unwell while you are waiting for results, please contact your doctor or call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance if you think it’s an emergency. Make sure you let them know you are waiting for test results for COVID-19.
If you are really sick, you may be admitted to hospital for treatment.
What does isolation mean?
The purpose of isolation is to prevent you from spreading whatever is causing your symptoms to others around you.
In isolation, you can’t leave your home, residence, hotel, or accommodation except to seek or receive medical care until you receive your result. You should not have visitors during this time, and you should stay away from others in your household as much as you can, not share rooms or household items, and practise good hygiene. See isolation requirements for more information.
I’m still waiting for my tests results – how long will it take to get them back?
This depends on the type of test you have had and the testing technology used. It will usually take up to a couple of days to receive your test results.
If you’ve been tested in a public Queensland Health facility and have not received a call or SMS notification and would like to follow up your test result, you can call Pathology Queensland on 1800 472 847.
Please wait at least 48 hours after your test was collected. This service is available from Monday to Friday, 8:00am to 5:30pm and Saturday, Sunday and public holidays, 8:00am to 1:00pm. Hours may be extended during periods of expanded and surge testing.
Anyone who has had testing performed at Mater Pathology, QML, Sullivan & Nicolaides Pathology, MedLab or 4Cyte Pathology can get their results from their referring GP or direct from the private pathology provider.
How does the testing work?
Polymerase chain reaction testing or PCR testing is the type of test done most often in Queensland when testing for COVID-19. PCR testing looks for the genetic material of the virus in a sample taken from your body. As this test looks directly for the virus, it is the most accurate test for seeing whether a person is infected with the virus at the time the test is taken.
What’s a serology test, how does it work and are we doing it Queensland?
Serology testing is a new type of test for COVID-19 that has recently become available. Serology tests use blood samples to see whether you have COVID-19 antibodies.
Antibodies appear in your blood when your immune system has encountered a virus in the past. It usually takes a week or two after you get sick for antibodies to appear. If you have this test and have antibodies for COVID-19, it would show that you’ve had the virus at some point.
Serology testing has limitations. It doesn’t allow us to act on a new COVID-19 case nearly as quickly as the PCR testing. It’s also not yet known whether everyone who is infected with COVID-19 will develop antibodies to the virus, so we can’t guarantee its accuracy when used for widespread testing. As time goes on and more research is done around the world, we’ll know more about how effective these tests can be.
Because of this, at the moment, we’re only using serology tests in special circumstances for managing outbreaks and contact tracing.
I was sick months before COVID-19 was a thing – can I get a serology test to see if I had COVID-19?
At this stage, we’re not doing widespread serology testing in Queensland. We don’t know yet exactly how accurate these tests are, so the focus is still on using the PCR test to test people who currently have COVID-19 symptoms, so we can manage existing cases. Because of this, at the moment, we’re only using serology tests in special circumstances for managing outbreaks and contact tracing.
Can I be tested for COVID-19 using a saliva test?
Currently, saliva testing is not used in Queensland to test for COVID-19.
My test was negative but I’m still feeling sick – should I get tested again?
If you’re still feeling unwell and it seems unusual or you need medical help to treat your symptoms, you should talk to a GP or call 134 COVID (134 268) to get medical advice about your condition.
Where can I get a COVID-19 test in Queensland?
If you have COVID-19 symptoms, you can get tested by a GP, a Commonwealth Respiratory Clinic, or at public and private hospitals, where fever clinics have been established.
General Practice doctors, or GPs, can do COVID-19 testing or arrange these through private pathology providers, or they will refer you to another facility (like a pathology collection centre) for a test. Some GP clinics are now also offering special COVID-19 testing clinics.
The Commonwealth has funded General Practices to establish specialised Respiratory Clinics for people with respiratory symptoms to be assessed and tested as required separate from regular GP waiting and consulting rooms. There is no cost to individuals attending these clinics.
Most hospitals can test for COVID-19 and some have fever clinics set up specifically for this purpose. This helps to reduce the potential spread of the virus and keeps the emergency department available for other emergencies. Unless you are very unwell or it is an emergency, it’s best to contact your GP before visiting a hospital. If you are very unwell or in an emergency, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance and let them know you have symptoms of COVID-19.
Fever clinics are clinics for people who have symptoms of COVID-19. These clinics help keep people who may be contagious away from other areas of hospitals or health services to minimise risk to other patients and staff. You can find a list of fever clinics in Queensland on the Queensland Government website.
I’m getting a COVID-19 test – do I need to tell my workplace? My child is getting tested, should I tell their school?
After having a COVID-19 test, you will need to isolate until you get your results. The same rule applies to children, too. This might mean you miss work or school, and it would be appropriate to tell your workplace or your child’s school that you’re absent because you have to isolate after a COVID-19 test.
If your test result is negative, you are not under a quarantine order and you/your child is well, you can return to work or your child can return to school. If you are still feeling sick, you should stay at home even if you have a negative test, so you don’t spread the germs that you do have.
If your test result is positive, you will be advised to either isolate at home while you recover or be taken to hospital for treatment if necessary. As part of contact tracing, public health officials will contact people that you have been in close contact with, which will include people at your workplace, or for your child, people at their school.
People around you, for example those you live with and people you have been in contact with, do not need to self-quarantine while you are waiting for your test results.
When case numbers are low, does that mean we don’t need to do as many tests?
When restrictions ease across Queensland, the risk of COVID-19 cases happening in the Queensland community increases, so we actually need more people to get tested for COVID-19. Getting tested will help us find as many cases in the community as quickly as possible. This will ensure we are doing everything we can to manage Queensland’s response to the pandemic. So, if you’re sick with any COVID-19 symptoms, you should get tested straight away.
What is Queensland Health doing to make sure it has enough testing capacity?
In Queensland, we’re already processing thousands of COVID-19 tests every day, with laboratories having capacity to do 10,000 tests per day. We continue to encourage anyone with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested.
How accurate are the tests?
Queensland was one of the first health jurisdictions in the world to have a reliable and accurate testing regime in place for COVID-19. It’s very uncommon for these tests to return an incorrect result, but it’s important to remember that issues can occur in all types of testing. To account for this, if there are doubts about the accuracy of a particular test result, your doctor may ask you to be re-tested.
To monitor how effective and safe the tests are, the Therapeutic Goods Administration are receiving evidence regularly from people using the tests.
Will there be different types of tests for COVID-19 in the future?
As the situation develops, new types of tests might become available. If they do, we’ll let the Queensland public know if they need to have them done and how they’ll work.
How many COVID-19 tests have we done in Queensland?
In Queensland, we’ve performed more than 3.4 million COVID-19 tests since the start of the outbreak. This kind of wide-scale testing was unusual prior to the pandemic and has been a massive effort on behalf of both health workers, pathology services and the public. You can keep up-to-date with testing numbers and results on our Queensland COVID-19 statistics report page.