5 min read

Understanding COVID-19 PCR Tests

COVID-19 PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests are diagnostic tests designed to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in a patient's sample. These tests are considered the gold standard for diagnosing active COVID-19 infections due to their high sensitivity and specificity. By identifying the virus's genetic material (RNA), PCR tests can confirm whether an individual is currently infected with SARS-CoV-2, even if they are not experiencing symptoms.

How COVID-19 PCR Tests Work

COVID-19 PCR tests involve the following steps:

  1. Sample Collection: A healthcare provider collects a sample from the patient, typically using a nasopharyngeal swab (a long, flexible swab inserted deep into the nose) or an oropharyngeal swab (a swab of the throat). Other sample types, such as saliva or lower respiratory tract specimens, may also be used in some cases.
  2. RNA Extraction: The collected sample is processed to extract the viral RNA, which is the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2.
  3. Amplification: The extracted RNA is then amplified using a process called reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). This process involves converting the RNA into complementary DNA (cDNA) and then making millions of copies of the cDNA to enable detection.
  4. Detection: The amplified genetic material is detected using fluorescent dyes or probes that bind specifically to SARS-CoV-2 sequences. If the virus is present in the sample, the fluorescent signal will be detected, indicating a positive result.

When to Get Tested

Individuals should consider getting a COVID-19 PCR test in the following situations:

  1. Symptoms: If a person experiences symptoms consistent with COVID-19, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, or gastrointestinal issues, they should get tested to confirm the diagnosis.
  2. Exposure: If an individual has had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or has been in a high-risk situation (e.g., large gatherings or travel to areas with high transmission rates), they should get tested, even if they do not have symptoms.
  3. Screening: Some workplaces, schools, or events may require regular COVID-19 testing as part of their screening protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.
  4. Medical Procedures: Before certain medical procedures or hospitalization, patients may be required to undergo COVID-19 testing to ensure the safety of healthcare workers and other patients.

It is essential to follow local health department guidelines and consult with a healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate timing and frequency of testing based on individual circumstances and risk factors.

The time it takes to receive results from a COVID-19 PCR test can vary depending on several factors, such as the testing location, the volume of tests being processed, and the laboratory's capacity. On average, results are typically available within 24-72 hours after the sample is collected.

Some factors that can impact the turnaround time for COVID-19 PCR test results include:

  1. Testing Facility: The time it takes to receive results can vary between different testing sites, such as hospitals, clinics, or drive-through testing centers. Some facilities may have on-site laboratories that can process tests more quickly, while others may need to send samples to external labs.
  2. Laboratory Capacity: The processing time for COVID-19 PCR tests can be affected by the number of tests a laboratory receives and its capacity to handle the volume. During periods of high demand, such as surges in COVID-19 cases, processing times may be longer.
  3. Sample Transportation: If the sample needs to be transported to an off-site laboratory, the time required for transportation can add to the overall turnaround time.
  4. Priority Processing: In some cases, certain samples may be prioritized for faster processing, such as those from healthcare workers, hospitalized patients, or individuals in high-risk settings.

Some testing locations may offer rapid PCR tests, which can provide results in a matter of hours. However, the availability of rapid tests may be limited, and they may have slightly lower sensitivity compared to standard PCR tests.

To get the most accurate information about turnaround times for COVID-19 PCR test results, it is best to inquire directly with the specific testing facility or healthcare provider. They can provide more detailed guidance based on their current processing times and any factors that may impact the speed of results.

Interpreting COVID-19 PCR Test Results

Interpreting the results of a COVID-19 PCR test is crucial for making informed decisions about patient care, isolation, and contact tracing. Healthcare providers consider several factors when interpreting test results, including the patient's symptoms, exposure history, and the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community.

  1. Positive Result: A positive COVID-19 PCR test result indicates that the patient is currently infected with SARS-CoV-2. In this case, the individual should:
    • Isolate to prevent spreading the virus to others
    • Monitor symptoms and seek medical care if necessary
    • Inform close contacts of their potential exposure
    • Follow local health department guidelines for isolation and return to normal activities
  2. Negative Result: A negative COVID-19 PCR test result suggests that the patient is not currently infected with SARS-CoV-2. However, a negative result should be interpreted in the context of the individual's symptoms and exposure history. In some cases, a negative result may require additional testing or follow-up, particularly if:
    • The patient has symptoms consistent with COVID-19
    • The patient has had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case
    • The test was performed too early in the infection course
    • There are concerns about the quality of the sample or the test performance
  3. Inconclusive Result: In rare cases, a COVID-19 PCR test may produce an inconclusive result, meaning that the test could not definitively determine the presence or absence of SARS-CoV-2. This can occur due to factors such as:
    • Low viral load in the sample
    • Improper sample collection or handling
    • Technical issues with the test or equipment

In the case of an inconclusive result, the test may need to be repeated, or additional testing may be necessary to confirm the patient's COVID-19 status.


COVID-19 PCR tests are the gold standard for diagnosing active SARS-CoV-2 infections, providing high sensitivity and specificity in detecting the virus's genetic material. These tests play a crucial role in identifying infected individuals, guiding patient care, and informing public health measures to control the spread of the virus.

By understanding when to get tested, how PCR tests work, and how to interpret test results, healthcare providers and individuals can make informed decisions about managing COVID-19 infections and preventing further transmission.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, it is essential to stay informed about the latest testing guidelines and recommendations from local health authorities and healthcare providers. Combining PCR testing with other preventive measures, such as vaccination, social distancing, and mask-wearing, remains critical in the ongoing effort to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and protect public health.

Caring for You, Every Step of the Way