With new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 spreading across the U.S. and nearly all of the Chicago area rising to a higher alert level, many are wondering what to do if they experience symptoms or test positive for the virus.
If you were exposed, when could symptoms start, how long are you contagious, how long should you quarantine for and when is the best time test?
Nearly every Chicago-area county is now under a “medium community level” for COVID transmission, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cases, and in some counties hospitalizations, are continuing to rise.
At the same time, BA.2.12.1, which health officials say appears to be up to 27% more contagious than BA.2, is now responsible for approximately 36.5% of cases nationwide, according to the most recent CDC weekly numbers.
Here’s a look at the guidance from the CDC on what to do if you test positive or believe you were exposed to someone who has. This guidance was most recently updated at the end of March.
How Long After COVID Exposure Could Symptoms Start?
According to the CDC, COVID symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after someone is exposed to the virus.
But guidelines state those who were exposed should watch for symptoms until at least 10 days after the last close contact with someone who had COVID.
Anyone with symptoms should get tested.
As BA.2 cases continue their dominance across the Midwest and U.S., here’s a look at the latest symptoms to watch for.
When Should You Get a COVID Test?
Regardless of symptoms or vaccinations, those who are exposed to someone with coronavirus should get tested at least five days after their exposure.
Those who develop symptoms should get tested as symptoms develop, but if a test is negative and symptoms persist another test might be needed a few days later, particularly for those who use at-home test kits.
“So if someone is having symptoms and they get a negative test, one, it depends on the severity right? If you’re having severe symptoms we don’t want you to just do a home test either,” Dr. Nimmi Rajagopal, the associate chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine for Cook County Health, told NBC 5 during the omicron surge late last year. “We want you to call your doctor’s office and make sure that they have an opinion here because there are of course other things like the flu that are out there that can mimic symptoms or have similar symptoms. But if you’re having symptoms and they’re kind of mild and lingering and you use the [at-home] test and it’s negative, we want you to take the precautions and then retest in three to five days. And that’s why most of these kits actually come with two tests.”
What is the Incubation Period for COVID and How Long Are You Contagious?
“A person with COVID-19 is considered infectious starting two days before they develop symptoms, or two days before the date of their positive test if they do not have symptoms,” according to the CDC.
Regardless of symptoms, those who test positive are advised to take specific precautions for at least 10 days.
“Lets say somebody is diagnosed with COVID and they are in a setting during a time that they might be infectious, we know that with COVID, for the first five days you need to be isolated because you can definitely be spreading COVID at that point,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during a Facebook Live last month. “And then you need to be out in day six-10 in that mask.”
Which Symptoms Should You Watch For?
According to the CDC, the following are symptoms of a COVID infection:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
It remains unclear if certain symptoms are associated with BA.2.12.1 infections. However, when it comes to BA.2, some symptoms seem to largely mirror a small number of symptoms commonly reported in omicron infections, including cough, fatigue, congestion and runny nose.
For some people, coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple weeks. For others, it may cause no symptoms at all. The virus can lead to more severe illness, including pneumonia and death, for some.
When it comes to those who’ve been vaccinated and boosted, the cold-like symptoms experienced following an omicron infection are mostly the same regardless of the subvariant.
How Long Should you Quarantine or Isolate?
First, you’ll need to know the difference between whether you must quarantine or isolate. Those who believe they have been in contact with someone who has COVID and are unvaccinated should quarantine. Those who test positive, regardless of vaccination status, must isolate, according to the CDC.
Close contact is defined by the CDC and the Illinois Department of Public Health as “someone who was less than 6 feet away from an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.”
Here’s the breakdown:
If you come into close contact with someone with COVID-19, you should quarantine if you are not up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines or are unvaccinated. For these individuals, the CDC and IDPH recommend you:
- Stay home and away from other people for at least 5 days (day 0 through day 5) after your last contact with a person who has COVID-19. The date of your exposure is considered day 0. Wear a well-fitting mask when around others at home, if possible.
- For 10 days after your last close contact with someone with COVID-19, watch for fever (100.4◦F or greater), cough, shortness of breath, or other COVID-19 symptoms.
- If you develop symptoms, get tested immediately and isolate until you receive your test results. If you test positive, follow isolation recommendations.
- If you do not develop symptoms, get tested at least 5 days after you last had close contact with someone with COVID-19.
- If you test negative, you can leave your home, but continue to wear a well-fitting mask when around others at home and in public until 10 days after your last close contact with someone with COVID-19.
- If you test positive, you should isolate for at least 5 days from the date of your positive test (if you do not have symptoms). If you do develop COVID-19 symptoms, isolate for at least 5 days from the date your symptoms began (the date the symptoms started is day 0). Follow recommendations in the isolation section below.
- If you are unable to get a test 5 days after last close contact with someone with COVID-19, you can leave your home after day 5 if you have been without COVID-19 symptoms throughout the 5-day period. Wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days after your date of last close contact when around others at home and in public.
- Avoid people who are have weakened immune systems or are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19, and nursing homes and other high-risk settings, until after at least 10 days.
- If possible, stay away from people you live with, especially people who are at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19, as well as others outside your home throughout the full 10 days after your last close contact with someone with COVID-19.
- If you are unable to quarantine, you should wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days when around others at home and in public.
- If you are unable to wear a mask when around others, you should continue to quarantine for 10 days. Avoid people who have weakened immune systems or are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19, and nursing homes and other high-risk settings, until after at least 10 days.
- Do not travel during your 5-day quarantine period. Get tested at least 5 days after your last close contact and make sure your test result is negative and you remain without symptoms before traveling. If you don’t get tested, delay travel until 10 days after your last close contact with a person with COVID-19. If you must travel before the 10 days are completed, wear a well-fitting mask when you are around others for the entire duration of travel during the 10 days. If you are unable to wear a mask, you should not travel during the 10 days.
- Do not go to places where you are unable to wear a mask, such as restaurants and some gyms, and avoid eating around others at home and at work until after 10 days after your last close contact with someone with COVID-19.
Those who are close contacts of someone with COVID but are up-to-date on their vaccinations or have had a confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 90 days do not need to quarantine, but the CDC does recommend they wear a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days after their most recent exposure and get tested after at least five days.
According to the CDC, people who are positive for COVID should stay home until it’s safe for them to be around others, including even other members of their home.
Health officials recommend a “sick room” or area for those who are infected and a separate bathroom, if possible.
But isolation may not just be for those who test positive. The CDC also recommends those who have symptoms of COVID-19 and are awaiting test results or have not yet been tested isolate, “even if they do not know if they have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19.”
How do you end isolation?
- You can end isolation after five full days if you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and your other symptoms have improved (Loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months after recovery and need not delay the end of isolation).
- If you continue to have fever or your other symptoms have not improved after 5 days of isolation, you should wait to end your isolation until you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and your other symptoms have improved. Continue to wear a well-fitting mask through day 10. Contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.
- Do not go to places where you are unable to wear a mask, such as restaurants and some gyms, and avoid eating around others at home and at work until a full 10 days after your first day of symptoms.
So how do you calculate your isolation period?
According to the CDC, “day 0 is your first day of symptoms.” That means that Day 1 is the first full day after your symptoms developed.
For those who test positive for COVID but have no symptoms, day 0 is the day of the positive test. Those who develop symptoms after testing positive must start their calculations over, however, with day 0 then becoming the first day of symptoms.
Under the CDC guidance, those in isolation should:
- Monitor your symptoms. If you have an emergency warning sign (including trouble breathing), seek emergency medical care immediately.
- Stay in a separate room from other household members, if possible.
- Use a separate bathroom, if possible.
- Take steps to improve ventilation at home, if possible.
- Avoid contact with other members of the household and pets.
- Don’t share personal household items, like cups, towels, and utensils.
- Wear a well-fitting mask when you need to be around other people.
Do you need to test out of isolation?
While testing out of isolation is not required, the CDC says those who choose to should use an antigen test and not a PCR test. These can be taken toward the end of the isolation period.
“Collect the test sample only if you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and your other symptoms have improved,” the CDC states. “If your test result is positive, you should continue to isolate until day 10. If your test result is negative, you can end isolation, but continue to wear a well-fitting mask around others at home and in public until day 10.”
What should you do after quarantine or isolation?
After quarantining for the appropriate amount of time, those who were exposed should continue to watch for symptoms until at least 10 days after their exposure. If symptoms develop, they should isolate immediately and get tested.
After ending isolation, the CDC recommends individuals continue wearing a mask through day 10, or continue isolating for a full 10 days if masking isn’t an option. They also urged these individual to avoid anyone with a weakened immune system or those at higher risk of infection for the full 10 days.
When Should You Call a Doctor?
The CDC urges those who have or may have COVID-19 to watch for emergency warning signs and seek medical care immediately if they experience symptoms including:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
“This list is not all possible symptoms,” the CDC states. “Please call your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning to you.”
You can also notify the operator that you believe you or someone you are caring for has COVID.
What If You Test Positive Using an At-Home Test?
Those who test positive using an at-home test are asked to follow the latest CDC guidelines and communicate the results to their healthcare provider.
Arwady has said that that process is not likely happening for every test, however.
“All of those negatives realistically are not being reported,” Arwady said. “We’re not counting, you know, it’s a fiction that we’ve ever counted every COVID test.”
The at-home results are part of the reason Illinois’ health department changed the COVID metrics it tests.
With the state no longer reporting COVID case and test positivity, health officials said the reason is in part due to incomplete data due to at-home tests.
The department said the change, in part led by the fact that national testing data does not often reflect results from at-home tests, means that labs will no longer be required to report negative rapid antigen test results, though they will still need to show negative PCR and nucleic acid amplification test results.