MILWAUKEE — If you’re looking to get a COVID-19 test in Wisconsin these days, you’re definitely not alone.

What You Need To Know

  • If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you should get tested right away

  • If you were exposed to COVID-19, you should get tested a couple days after your exposure

  • A PCR test is the most sensitive for picking up on infections, while an antigen test can quickly tell you if you're contagious right now

  • One negative test, especially if it's rapid, can't tell you for sure that you are in the clear

With omicron’s quick spread this holiday season, the state is seeing longer lines at sites and higher demand for at-home kits. Health experts have stressed that testing is still a key tool for containing the COVID-19 spread amid our latest surge.

“Testing will give you the information you need to know to keep your loved ones safe from COVID-19,” DHS Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge said in a statement.

Here, we break down some of the key reminders for COVID-19 testing in the age of omicron.


How do I know if I should get a test?

There are a few reasons to seek out a COVID-19 test. For one, if you’re having any symptoms of COVID-19, the CDC recommends getting tested as soon as possible. 

A COVID-19 infection can cause a wide range of possible symptoms — like fever, congestion, cough, fatigue and loss of taste or smell. Some reports so far are suggesting that symptoms from the omicron variant look a lot like the common cold, including a runny nose, sore throat and headache.

Even if you’re not feeling very sick, you may still be contagious, the DHS points out, so mild symptoms are still a reason to find a test.

If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, you should also seek out a test, the CDC recommends. 

For fully vaccinated people, the ideal time to get a test is a few days after being exposed, according to CDC guidance. If you’re not fully vaccinated, you should get a test right away — but go back for another test after a few days.

And while we used to use the 6-foot rule to figure out who’d been exposed, we’re now dealing with more contagious versions of the virus, Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, said at a briefing last week.

The omicron variant appears to be much more infectious than delta, which was already more infectious than the original virus. Now, if there’s a positive case, “that virus is moving through that entire environment,” Weston said — so you might still be exposed from farther away.

Even if you don’t have symptoms or a known exposure, testing can also add an extra layer of protection for gatherings. If you’re getting together with friends or family over the holidays, Weston said it’s important to do so safely, making sure no one is spreading the virus without knowing it.

“That means everyone at the gathering taking a rapid test the morning of to make sure they’re not positive,” Weston said. “And if that rapid test is positive, stay home.”

If you’re still unsure, the CDC also has an online tool to help you decide when to get tested.


What are different tests good for?

There are a couple main options for checking your COVID-19 status — with different levels of sensitivity to the virus.

PCR tests are still the gold standard for diagnosing a COVID-19 infection. 

These tests use lab equipment to look for any of the virus’s genetic material hanging out in your body. They can detect even small traces of the virus, so they are very sensitive.

But because samples need to be processed in the lab, PCR tests can’t get you a positive or negative result right away. Usually, you’ll be waiting a couple days to get your results back. (Certain locations do offer fast-tracked PCR options, usually for an extra fee.)

Antigen tests, on the other hand, are fast, but not as sensitive. They look for proteins on the surface of the virus.

If you’re taking a rapid test — whether at a testing site or as an at-home kit — it’s probably an antigen test. These tests are easy to perform and can return results within minutes.

The drawback with antigen tests is that they’re not as sensitive, so they may miss an infection in its early stages. Essentially, a rapid test is good for telling you whether you’re contagious with the virus right now: “Those tests aren’t good for much longer than that day,” Weston said at a briefing.

But false positive results are rare with antigen tests — so, if your rapid result comes back positive, you should start taking precautions right away. You can still get a PCR test to confirm your diagnosis.

“A positive test is a positive test,” Weston said.

There are also antibody tests, which look for immune proteins in the blood that can signal that you’ve had COVID-19 in the past. But these tests shouldn’t be used to look for a current COVID-19 infection.


If I test negative, am I in the clear?

Not necessarily. It may be frustrating, but one negative test isn’t always conclusive.

After you get infected with COVID-19, the virus starts making copies of itself in your body. The viral load — or the amount of virus in your body — has to reach a certain level before tests can start picking up on an infection.

Antigen tests are less sensitive, so they won’t catch an infection until it’s at a pretty high viral load. They’re good at catching the “red hot” cases that are at their most contagious points, as the experts at Dear Pandemic explain — but “a negative test should not be seen as a zero risk pass.”

Rapid tests really represent “a moment in time,” testing expert Gigi Gronvall told The New York Times. They work best when you take them regularly, since they only catch cases in a smaller part of the infection window.

Since PCR tests are more sensitive, they can catch an infection sooner, while the viral load is lower. But they still may not pick up an infection right at the beginning, which is why health officials say getting tested a few days after an exposure is key.

To make things more complicated, there’s some evidence that the omicron variant could build up faster in the body, so tests may be able to pick up a new infection sooner.

In any case, if you test negative but you have symptoms, or know you were exposed to the virus, experts recommend getting a follow-up test about two days later to confirm. You should also be taking precautions like masking up and staying away from others if you’re feeling under the weather or still in the quarantine window after an exposure.


Where can I get tested?

There are a wide range of test sites across the state — though as omicron drives up case numbers, you might be dealing with long lines to get swabbed.

The DHS has a statewide map of community testing sites. And Milwaukee has its own online guide to local test locations at HealthyMKE.

A lot of pharmacies and doctor’s offices offer both antigen and PCR testing options. Many local health departments in Wisconsin also are running test sites, generally focused on PCR tests. Make sure to check ahead whether a test site requires appointments.

Health officials emphasized that you should not go to the emergency room just to get a COVID-19 test: “This helps keep the emergency rooms available to people who really need them,” Chad Craig, chief medical officer of Ascension Wisconsin, said at a briefing last week. You should seek out emergency care if you’re facing severe symptoms like trouble breathing, persistent chest pain or confusion, the CDC recommends.

The state can also send you a free at-home collection kit if you request one online. These kits let you collect your own saliva sample at home, then ship them off to a lab for a PCR test.

As for the at-home rapid tests, you can buy them over-the-counter at pharmacies and other retailers — though they’ve been selling out quickly in recent weeks. Make sure you buy a test that has been authorized for use by the FDA.