Explained: Why you shouldn’t take your COVID-19 test on day one of showing symptoms

Indian Council of Medical Research Director-General Dr Balram Bhargava said on the first day the test will be negative as it takes time for the virus to grow in the human body

A health worker collects a swab sample of a woman to test for COVID-19 in New Delhi. AP

Amid a surge in coronavirus infections powered by the Omicron variant, the Centre had on 5 January revised its home quarantine rules, stating that either those asymptomatic or having very mild symptoms, could self-isolate at home for seven days rather than the prescribed 10-day limit.

In a statement, it had said, “Over the past two years, it has been seen globally as well as in India that majority of cases of COVID-19 are either asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. Such cases usually recover with minimal interventions and accordingly may be managed at home under proper medical guidance and monitoring.

“Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has thus issued and updated guidelines for home isolation from time to time to clarify selection criteria, precautions that need to be followed by such patients and their families, signs that require monitoring and prompt reporting to health facilities.”

But why was there a revision in the guidelines? And also, who should get tested? We explain it here.

From 10-day isolation to 7 days

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director-General Dr Balram Bhargava in a press conference explained why India had decided to change its quarantine period.

On Wednesday, he explained that lateral flow tests, which includes rapid-antigen and home-antigen tests, can detect coronavirus from the third day after exposure to the virus today eight while the RT-PCR test can diagnose the infection for up to 20 days.

He said that people shouldn’t take the test on the first day of showing symptoms as it would show a negative result.

“It takes time for the virus to grow in your system and that is known as the latent period. From day three it will be detectable in the Lateral Flow Tests and up to day eight which is the infectious period,” he said.

He further added that this is why the isolation period and discharge policy had been modified.

Dr Bhargava also explained that RT-PCR test results would continue to be positive even after day eight because certain RNA particles which are non-infective would continue to shed and will continue to cause test results to be positive.

Who should get tested?

The ICMR had also recently changed the guidelines on who should get tested. At a time when the country is witnessing a spike in cases — India recorded 2,47,417 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday — the testing has also ramped up in the country. The health ministry data showed that those 17,61,900 COVID-19 tests were conducted on Wednesday across the nation.

The Centre has said that contacts of confirmed COVID-19 patients are not required to undertake a test unless they are identified as ‘high-risk’ based on age or co-morbidities.

The government put out new rules on testing, saying that asymptomatic people, people who ended home isolation and individuals undertaking inter-state travel didn’t need to carry out an RT-PCR test.

It said that those symptomatic (cough, fever, sore throat, loss of taste and/or smell, breathlessness and/or other respiratory symptoms) individuals, at-risk contacts {over the age of 60 or suffering from diabetes, hypertension, chronic lung or kidney disease, malignancy, obesity}, individuals undertaking international travel and travellers arriving at Indian airports/seaports and other entries needed to be tested.

The Centre also said: “Asymptomatic patients undergoing surgical/non-surgical invasive procedures, including pregnant women in/near labour who are hospitalised for delivery, should not be tested unless warranted or symptoms develop.”

India’s testing capabilities

According to government data, India has 3,128 testing laboratories and the daily RT-PCR testing capacity is over 20 lakh.

With inputs from agencies

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