What you need to know about COVID-19 testing in Houston

HOUSTON -- Here is the latest information on how and where to find coronavirus testing locations in Houston.

Who can get tested for coronavirus?

Testing criteria varies by site, but most prioritize medical workers; first responders and the elderly; or those with underlying conditions, recent travel or exposure to someone with a confirmed positive case. People presenting common symptoms such as fever and a dry cough are also prioritized.

Can people without symptoms get tested?

Testing for those without any symptoms is becoming more widely available and is recommended for those who have been exposed to someone with a positive or potentially positive case of the coronavirus.

What is antibody testing?

An antibody test identifies someone who may have previously carried the virus and developed an immune response to it. These help identify those with presumed immunity; however, tests that are in development are not yet widely available or approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Houston Director of Emergency Medicine Dr. David Persse said.

"It is not a good test to see whether somebody has the illness. ... We need to find out what their sensitivity and specificity is to find exactly where in the equation of usefulness it exists. ... They're being a little bit misrepresented as to what they actually test for," Persse said.

"The fingertip test that tells you if you have antibodies, that's really of no value whatsoever," said Dr. Persse. "It will tell you that you have the virus some time ago, but it doesn't tell you if you won't have the virus again. It's essentially a completely unreliable result." Dr. Rensimer said. He offers the antibody tests to his patients if they request it, but he does not promote it because he does not think they are particularly useful.

What happens when someone receives a positive result?

Those with manageable symptoms should stay home and avoid all person-to-person contact until symptoms subside, Persse said. Health care providers can monitor symptoms remotely and determine when a patient has returned to health. Those who have come in contact with that person may be able to seek out testing at certain sites, even prior to their test results coming in. If conditions worsen, Persse said to seek medical advice and call ahead if going to an emergency department.

What is the most accurate COVID-19 test?

"The most reliable test, is the test with nasal swab," said Houston's Health Authority Dr. David Persse. "That takes a minimum of 24-hours to get back." Nasal PCR tests are tests where a swab is inserted into your nose and the sample is then sent off to a lab to be analyzed. Because the analysis is done at a lab, the process takes longer, however, it is considered the "gold standard" of tests.

What about the 15 minute test we see everywhere?

"The quick test, there is one with Abbott labs now. If you get a positive result, that's reliable," said Dr. Persse. "However, if you get a negative, that is not reliable at all because there's a high negative with that particular test."

Why are the 15 minute tests not considered that reliable?

"They're just not as accurate," said Dr. Ed. Rensimer, an infectious disease doctor who is doing testing at his office. "They're doing them quickly and the products that are out there right now just haven't proven to be as sensitive." Dr. Rensimer adds that if you are symptomatic, get a rapid test. He said if it's negative, get a second opinion. At that point, you should also get a nasal PCR test, which may very well come back positive.

What kind of tests are being offered at the free testing sites?

Most of the free test sites, including ones run by the City of Houston, State of Texas, Harris County, and various other locations, are PCR lab tests. The time to get results back are anywhere from 24 hours to four or five days.

Is there are difference between free sites and private testing that costs money?

Generally, no. Most nasal swab tests are sent to the major labs Quest and Labcorp, whether they are government run sites or testing in your doctor's offices. The quick tests are mostly offered at standalone emergency room locations, and costs range from $80 to $150, although they are sometimes covered by insurance. Some doctors are also offering sputum tests, where the patient's spit is tested for the virus.

Does the coronavirus test cost anything?

Tests administered through Harris County and the city of Houston are free. Tests offered by private providers are paid through insurance or out-of-pocket payment. Some sites operated though public-private partnerships or at federally qualified health centers also offer free tests for those without health insurance. For payment and testing access questions, residents are encouraged to contact their primary care physicians or local coronavirus hotlines.

City of Houston: 832-393-4220

Brazoria County: 979-864-2167

Fort Bend County: 281-633-7795

Galveston County: 409-978-4040

Harris County: 832-927-7575

Montgomery County: 9365235040

Waller County: 979-826-6063

Where can I get a coronavirus test?

There are two types of testing locations:

Walk-up testing: Some tests are available at health clinics, some CVS pharmacies, urgent care centers, free-standing emergency rooms and hospitals. Those with non-life-threatening symptoms who are seeking on-site testing should call primary care physicians for a consultation first, Harris County Public Health officials recommend. This gives health care providers time to prepare to administer a test by wearing protective clothing and isolating a patient before they come in contact with others.

Drive-thru testing: Large-scale testing sites are now being offered by both private and public providers. Government-funded tests are free to those with and without insurance. Some test centers require prescreening, while others perform screening on-site.

For more sites outside of Houston as well as walk-up sites, view the Texas Department of Human Services database here.

What if a patient with disabilities needs transportation to a testing site?

Houston residents with disabilities can get assistance by calling 832-394-0814, emailing mopdmail@houstontx.gov or visiting www.houstontx.gov/disabilities/.

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