What’s true and false about COVID-19 testing?

False: COVID-19 tests cannot tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu, so if you have a positive COVID-19 test it could just be the flu.

True: COVID-19 tests are designed to specifically recognize SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The do not detect influenza or other common cold viruses.

There are certain tests designed to detect both viruses, but they wouldn’t give a positive COVID-19 test if only the influenza virus were present. A positive COVID-19 test result only tells you that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is present.

False: COVID-19 tests can’t detect the Omicron variant.

True: Both rapid antigen and molecular tests (commonly called PCR tests) can detect the Omicron variant, but they don’t tell someone which variant they have – only that SARS-CoV-2 is in their body. However, no test is perfect and false negative results are common. Most tests continue to detect Omicron about as well as they detected previous variants.

False: If you test negative for COVID-19, you don’t need to wear a mask of take other precautions.

True: Unfortunately, false negative test results are common, especially for rapid tests, which aren’t as accurate as PCR tests. A negative result does not mean that you are not infected with COVID-19, even if you have symptoms. However, false positives from both kinds of tests are extremely rare. If your test comes back positive, you can trust that result.

If you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and test negative, you should still continue to practice safe behavior like wearing a mask, washing your hands, and physically distancing from other people. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 and test negative, you should continue to isolate from others and consider retesting in one to two days. Getting vaccinated and boosted is the most important thing you can do to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the risk of severe infection.

To find a free COVID-19 test, check out this list of high-volume testing sites. You can also order free tests from the federal government using this link. Each residential address can place one order, which contains four tests.