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Published on February 19, 2021

What does ‘rapid’ testing for COVID-19 mean?

Rapid Testing

Nearly a year into the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, how to test for the virus can still be confusing for people wishing to know if they have it, especially when they wish to travel safely.

The “gold standard” for testing is still the so-called ‘PCR’ test, said Cape Cod Hospital Emergency Medicine physician Michael Hall, MD, MPH. The PCR test is the one done in hospitals and at testing sites across Cape Cod and the rest of the state, which utilizes a swab deep into the nasal cavity. But, the results from this test can take hours or days, he said, which can be a drawback for those who wish to travel.

To answer this need Cape Cod Healthcare (CCHC) is now offering a test at its four Urgent Care Centers in Harwich, Hyannis, Sandwich and Falmouth which returns results in about 15 minutes. Known as the Abbott ID NOW molecular test, it is what’s known as a ‘rapid’ test and has another advantage besides its quick turnaround, explained Dr. Hall.

“You just have to do a nasal swab as opposed to a nasal-pharyngeal swab which goes all the way back to your nose and throat,” he said.

The rapid test will also be available to anyone who is symptom-free and wishes to monitor their health regarding COVID-19, as well as to those who are symptomatic or have had known exposure to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. However, individuals who are symptomatic or exposed will be triaged by Urgent Care staff upon arrival and may be deemed to be more of a candidate for the PCR test at that time.

For complete information about COVID-19 testing, visit the Cape Cod Healthcare website section on testing.

The Abbott ID NOW test is a nucleic acid amplification (NAAT) test, which is essentially still a PCR test, said Dr. Hall. PCR tests are always molecular, while the rapid tests can either be molecular or antigen in their properties, he said. PCR tests are more sensitive than the antigen tests and are therefore better at identifying people with COVID-19, he added.

Both the PCR tests and the Abbott ID NOW test pick up a very small amount of genetic material and amplify it exponentially to the point where it is detectable, he said.

“The (Abbott ID NOW) test we have is up to 95 percent sensitive, meaning it will pick up 95 percent of people who have COVID, if they are tested properly using the Abbott protocol,” he said. The protocol generally has to do with obtaining the sample correctly and testing it properly, he said.

The tests at the four CCHC Urgent Care Centers will be done with a nurse in attendance and all of the nurses are well versed in the Abbott protocol, Dr. Hall said.

A Convenient Option if Traveling

If you are seeking a COVID-19 rapid test, due to travel or for health monitoring, you must be symptom-free and have no known exposure to a person confirmed positive for the virus.

To obtain a rapid test at one of the four Urgent Care Centers:

  • Arrive and check into one of the kiosks, as usual.
  • When called by a registrar, a fee of $125 will be collected (Please note: insurance does not pay for the test for travel or health monitoring purposes).
  • When called into a room with a nurse, you will self-administer the swab. The nurse will be in a mask and gloves, per the COVID-19 protocol.
  • After about 15 minutes, the test result is obtained, and documentation is handed to the patient. The results are also documented in the patient’s MyChart electronic patient portal.

If you are planning to travel by air, it is “highly recommended” that you check with your airline to make sure the Abbott ID NOW test is accepted, said Hilary Challies-McDermott, executive director of Urgent Care for CCHC.

“The airlines are very specific,” she said.

Challies-McDermott also recommended that if you are planning to travel internationally, you check with your destination’s Office of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Health, or with the U.S. State Department about the acceptability of the test.

Testing for COVID-19 continues to evolve, and the terminology around it “is confusing for everybody, including clinicians, because it’s always changing,” Dr. Hall said. But genetic testing, which is the type used in the longer-term and rapid PCR testing done at CCHC “is definitely better now,” he added.

In a press release last fall, John Hackett, PhD, divisional vice president of Applied Research and Technology for Abbott’s diagnostics business said that at the start of the pandemic, the scientific community had to rely on samples and modeling to predict test performance.

“But now we have a significant body of real-world, clinical data that support the critical role ID NOW is playing in identifying infection rapidly in places where people show up for care,” he said.

For more details about COVID-19 testing at Cape Cod Healthcare and other information on the virus, visit the COVID-19 Resource Center at the CCHC website.