How to Time a COVID-19 Test Ahead of (and After) a Family Gathering
Let's be clear: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that we avoid celebrating the holidays with friends and family who don't live within our immediate households this year. It's a harsh reality—but as unfortunate as it is that the holidays will look and feel different than what we're used to, it is important that we all take extra steps to protect ourselves and one another during this difficult time. With these recommendations in mind—along with your state's specific guidelines—modifying how you celebrate should be step one. If you do decide to go ahead with a small, outdoor gathering with a handful of people, the second step is a COVID-19 test. Here, we spoke with two medical professionals to find out the best time to get one—and what you should be doing both before and after your test.
If you are hosting or attending an in-person event this holiday season, the CDC recommends ensuring that guest counts are low, attendees remain six feet apart at all times, and everyone wears a mask for the entire duration of the event—which should take place outside. Additionally, you should consider getting tested and quarantining before and after celebrating.
Jonathan Baktari, M.D., the CEO of e7 Health, a primary care facility offering COVID-19 and COVID-19 antibody testing, says that you should get tested about 48 hours before any gathering. "You always run the risk of people potentially being negative who have the virus but haven't started shedding it yet," he explains, adding that you need to quarantine immediately after your test to be sure that you don't pick up the virus between your appointment and the event; that isolation period should run between 48 to 72 hours. For the best results, Dr. Baktari suggests an additional 48-hour quarantine period prior to testing, as well. "To be about as close to bulletproof as possible, take a second test right before the gathering, too," he says. "That will have to be a rapid antigen test (you'll have results in about 15 minutes), which is less reliable, but can still provide assurance if you don't have symptoms."
If you need to be tested once you return home, either because of the way you traveled, fear of exposure, or because you've begun to exhibit symptoms, you should do so; quarantine upon your arrival home and get a test a week after you return. Just be sure to alert anyone you have come into contact with since your last negative test in the unfortunately event that you do come back positive.
According to Gwen Murphy, PhD, MPH, and the Executive Director of Epidemiology and Clinical Studies at LetsGetChecked, traveling for the holidays requires serious preparation—prep that should already be underway if you plan on flying to a Christmas event. "To minimize risk to your family and friends, you should quarantine for two weeks before travel, and again for two weeks after," she explains (yes, that is a full month total!). "In addition, some people may choose to get a test, while quarantining, within a few days of their departure." Before you head out, she adds, be sure to check the regulations of the place you're traveling to. "Each state and local public health authority will have recommendations or requirements for people to follow after travel," adds Dr. Murphy.
Quarantining, our experts explains, applies to you and everyone living within your home—your spouse, your kids, you name it. "If your spouse, child, or roommate is going to work or school and coming back home, you're not effectively quarantining," explains Dr. Baktari. "A quarantine means you stay home—and the others in the house stay home, as well." This also means ordering in groceries and food, and eliminating contact with those outside of your home as much as possible. "Running errands to the grocery store, gas station, and so on—those are breaking your quarantine," he notes.