The winter of 2021-2022 promises to be an eventful chapter in the COVID-19 pandemic, which is seeing record numbers of cases flaring across the country due to the highly contagious omicron variant.
But those case numbers are typically a reflection of health care-administered testing, which doesn’t include the increasingly common at-home tests people are using to determine whether they’re infected. And that, health officials say, is proving to be a gap in data.
According to Patrick Ashley, the senior deputy director of health emergency preparedness and response administration at DC Health, people who test positive for the coronavirus using one of the antigen-based tests available at retail stores should report their results to their local health agency or their physician.
“Whether it’s a PCR test that’s done through a laboratory or an antigen test that’s done at home, the disease is still the disease, so understanding what’s going on in the community helps us to understand do we need to dial things up or dial things down?” Ashley told NBC.
An increased number of cases can influence public health policy in a given region. If those positives go unreported, a community may not have an accurate picture of community spread.
Many health departments around the country have web portals for reporting at-home test results; contacting your doctor means their office will likely report the case to officials. Reporting may also allow for patients to have documentation of test results to show to employers or schools.
Muddying the waters somewhat is that the at-home tests are typically antigen-based, which provide rapid results but are not as sensitive as PCR-based testing available in a clinical setting. An at-home test may provide a false negative result when not enough of the virus is present—often during its early stages or when a person is still asymptomatic. Because PCR tests look for genetic material in the virus and need less of it, they’re seen as more reliable. (Pixel, a mail-away PCR test by LabCorp, can be taken at home, though demand for the test kits is high.)
If you test positive on an antigen or PCR at-home test, it’s best to visit your local health department’s website to see if they offer guidance on reporting it. If not, reaching out to your doctor should result in the information getting in the right hands. If you test negative but experience symptoms or happen to be in a high-spread area, it’s probably not necessary to report it, but you should isolate for whatever amount of time is recommended by your doctor to avoid infecting others.