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There are clear steps to take if you think you might be sick. Getty Images
  • There’s currently a limited supply of test kits with public health departments, so not everyone will qualify for testing.
  • The first thing you’ll want to do is ask yourself why you think you may have COVID-19.
  • If you have milder symptoms, give your primary care physician a call first for advice.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Now that we’ve seen the first few “community spread” coronavirus cases in the United States — first in California, then in Washington state and New York — many are wondering what steps to take if they get the respiratory illness otherwise known as COVID-19.

There’s been a bit of confusion about what steps to follow and where to get tested and treated. Some people are unsure who to call first — a doctor, urgent care, public health department, or coronavirus hotline — and if they’ll even be tested.

There’s currently a limited supply of test kits with public health departments, so not everyone will qualify for testing. Kits are mostly saved for the very sick and those who’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19.

In the coming weeks, that’ll change. Test kits will become more available at state laboratories, and individual and commercial laboratories will begin to use their own kits, according to officials.

Quest Diagnostics, for example, announced Thursday that their kits are under review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and will be available come Monday, March 9.

The first thing you’ll want to do is ask yourself why you think you may have COVID-19, says Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“What is it about your circumstances? Have you just come from abroad or have you had contact with someone internationally, particularly from a country where there is a lot of this virus?” Schaffner said.

One concern is if you’re older or have an underlying illness, such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, and are therefore at risk for a more severe illness.

That doesn’t mean you have a higher chance of having COVID-19, Schaffner noted, but it’s a concern for any illness.

If you just have a cough or mild symptoms and have had no contact with anyone who’s sick, your mind doesn’t need to immediately jump to coronavirus.

If you have milder symptoms, give your primary care physician a call first for advice. Clue them into your symptoms, underlying health issues, and let them know why you suspect you have COVID-19.

“If you’re not that sick, call your primary care doctor; they can assess whether you’ve had significant exposures and whether you’re sick enough to come to the office,” Dr. Sheldon Campbell, PhD, a Yale Medicine pathologist in the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory, told Healthline.

Hospitals are increasingly turning to telemedicine to minimize contact with patients, so they may first evaluate your symptoms via a phone call, video chat, or live messaging tool to get a sense of how sick you are.

Schaffner says there’s a definite role for telemedicine in the networks in which it’s been established.

If your healthcare provider isn’t comfortable with evaluating you or if you don’t have a doctor, contact your local board of health.

They can refer you to a nearby healthcare center where you can get evaluated and treated.

If your symptoms are more severe, give the emergency room a call and head there.

Don’t just show up to the waiting room without giving your provider a heads up first.

“You don’t want to expose everybody else in the waiting room, whether you have influenza or coronavirus infection or some other respiratory virus,” Schaffner said.

The CDC recommends that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people without symptoms or people who do not know they have contracted the virus. Cloth face masks should be worn while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here.
Note: It’s critical to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

Healthline

Your physician will work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state laboratories to determine if you need testing.

It’s important to understand that testing is still limited — it takes time to develop, manufacture, and implement testing, Campbell said.

At this point, laboratory tests — which are mainly available in state health departments — should be reserved for those who have a severe illness and patients who’ve been linked with others who have COVID-19.

“They don’t want the ‘worried well’ to submit so many specimens that the people who really do need testing, who have these more specific indications, get lost in the crowd,” Schaffner said.

In the next week or two, state health departments will have access to more public tests — they’ll run them and evaluate them and begin testing.

We’ll also see more private tests designed and created by individual medical centers and commercial laboratories become readily available.

Many are already being reviewed by the FDA.

Expect other individual labs to follow suit.

Testing, while important for following the spread of disease, isn’t critical.

“If you’re sick, you’re still sick whether you have this coronavirus or influenza or any of a dozen other respiratory viruses,” Campbell said. “It’s not currently treatable.”

Most patients with milder COVID-19 symptoms will be asked to isolate themselves at home, according to the CDC.

The most important thing is to keep a distance from others in your home. Wear a face mask only if you’re already sick, as this will help protect others from the infection.

Second, is to get plenty of rest and keep yourself well hydrated.

“That’s very important — that tends to help you prevent pneumonia,” Schaffner said.

A lot of people with milder illnesses end up in the ER because they’re dehydrated, Campbell added.

Fever reducers and pain medications, like acetaminophen, along with cough and cold medications can help alleviate symptoms.

Pay attention to your symptoms. If your symptoms worsen, call your doctor as they may want to reevaluate you.

“If you think you’re getting worse, certainly don’t tough it out at home,” Schaffner said. “That’s the time to call that healthcare provider again.”