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Yes, most accurate COVID test results come 3-5 days after exposure

It used to be best to test 5-7 days after exposure with original strains of the virus. That timeline is shorter now with the faster-spreading omicron variant.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — As Omicron fuels a post-holiday COVID surge across the country, at-home rapid tests replaced Lysol wipes as the hard-to-find pandemic commodity.

Given the low supply, you certainly don't want to waste a test simply because you took it too early or too late.

THE QUESTION

Is the optimal test time for COVID-19 still five days after a direct exposure?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

Yes, the optimal test time for COVID amid Omicron is still five days after exposure, but given how fast Omicron spreads, you can test as early as three days and likely have accurate results.

WHAT WE FOUND

Given what researchers know about rate of spread of the new variants, infectious diseases physician Chris Ohl explained, "The time to test following an exposure to COVID is roughly three to five days. For both Delta and Omicron, probably closer to three days makes more sense, because the virus is more transmissible and tends to cause infection faster."

The three-to-five-day recommendation is a change from the five-to-seven-day test time experts recommended in 2020 and early 2021, before Delta and Omicron entered the picture. 

Timing the test is key. A 2020 MIT published in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked into the probability of a false negative on a COVID test. On the first day after a probable exposure, the likelihood of a false negative was 100%. The percent decreased with each passing day. 

The CDC recently updated its isolation and quarantine guidelines for Omicron, saying science shows transmission occurs one to two days prior to symptom onset and in the two to three days after. In all exposure scenarios, whether you're vaccinated or not, the CDC suggests testing on day five after coming in contact with someone with COVID. 

With Omicron, Ohl noted any type of test that is FDA-approved can give accurate results.

"Either a PCR test or a rapid antigen test is fine, and the home tests are fine for doing that, as well," he said.

Soon, testing could become more plentiful and less expensive. Starting Jan. 15, the Biden administration is requiring insurers to reimburse clients for up to eight at-home tests per month. And, the government is working on a website where Americans can order some of the 500 million at-home kits becoming available soon.

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