What to Do If You Test Positive for COVID in Boston
Don't rush to the hospital, and other tips for doing this the right way.
We may not be in the early days of the pandemic anymore, but suddenly, a lot of people are confronting the question of just what to do if they test positive for COVID, assuming they can get their hands on a rapid test at all. Chances are, you already know many, many people who have, particularly as omicron tears through the city. And if the studies of coronavirus levels in wastewater are any indication (which they always are, with frightening accuracy), there’s way more COVID out there than the official records will ever show.
So if and when omicron comes for you, what are you supposed to do about it? Here’s what Bostonians need to know:
Don’t rush to the hospital
It can be unsettling, to say the least, if your rapid test comes back positive. But that doesn’t mean making a beeline for the nearest emergency room. In fact, healthcare professionals this season have been urging COVID-positive Bostonians to ride their illness out at home, so long as their symptoms are manageable.
Hospitals have also discouraged Bostonians from flocking to ERs just to get tested. Boston’s emergency rooms are crowded enough as is without people just trying to find out whether that stuffy nose is cause for concern. “ED is not the place where you want to be if you are asymptomatic and healthy,” Dr. Sadiqa Kendi at Boston Medical Center told WBUR this week.
ER doctors could not be more clear about this. “The ERs are at a breaking point, and please, if you are just seeking a COVID test, please seek a COVID test at a test site,” Dr. Melisa Lai-Becker, an ER doctor at CHA Everett Hospital, told NBC Boston.
Check in with a doctor
Not everyone has a doctor. This is a problem the public health community seems to brush aside every time it suggests you simply “call your doctor.” But the CDC and local health officials nevertheless do suggest you call and talk with a primary care provider if you can. If you have access to a messaging system through your doctor’s office, you can also connect with them that way to ask for advice.
Isolate at home
It goes without saying that getting a positive COVID test means you should avoid contact with others until it runs its course. If you’re COVID-positive and want to avoid passing it along to your roommates, health experts suggest trying to keep your distance from healthy cohabitants to the extent that’s possible. Which would mean getting cozy in a quarantine room if you can.
Watch for these symptoms
That said, you should keep an eye on yourself in case you start getting really sick, especially if you’re at risk or are unvaccinated. Here are some of the symptoms the CDC says to watch out for:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
Then you play the waiting game. But for how long is a matter of controversy. The CDC, which had earlier suggested a 10-day isolation period, is now saying that allowing five days after the onset of symptoms to pass is enough if you have no symptoms or your symptoms are subsiding, regardless of whether you have access to a testing kit and can test negative (they also recommend masking up as much as possible for the next five days). Some local health experts are not totally sold on this, among them Boston immunologist Dr. Michael Mina, who has called the new guidance “reckless.” So take that into consideration before you head out to celebrate your COVID recovery in the company of others.
Share your result
If you test positive, you can share your result via MassNotify, the state’s smartphone-enabled program that anonymously alerts people with whom you might have had close contact. Don’t expect to get called by a contact tracer, though. The state ended its contact tracing program in December.
Take another test
There are, of course, such things as false positives or false negatives. Rapid at-home tests are only about 85 percent accurate, and are less likely to catch a positive case if you don’t yet have symptoms. So if you have a box of two tests, take both of them a day or so apart (there should be instructions on the box). But again, if you’re testing positive on an at-home test and/or if you have symptoms, the experts say the smartest thing to do is stay home.
Tell your boss
If you have a job that requires you to work in person, you’ll need to take time off to isolate. But that doesn’t mean going without a paycheck until the virus runs its course. State law requires that employers provide paid time off for many COVID-related issues. Here’s the state’s rundown of rights for employees. If you feel like your boss is breaking the law somehow, the place to report that is the Attorney General’s Office.
Use city and state resources
You can also consult this list of resources compiled by the state for people struggling during the pandemic, including information about applying for rental assistance or food assistance. The city has also promoted a program called Good Neighbors, which connects people in need right now with neighbors who can help.
What if you’re simply exposed?
The CDC says it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to present themselves after a COVID exposure, so people will need to keep their guard up long after they’ve had a close call with someone else who has the virus. If you don’t have symptoms, the CDC recommends waiting a little while—at least five days—after a possible exposure to take a test. That’s to avoid testing negative early on, and then missing a positive test around the corner.
The guidance is also a little different depending on your vaccination status. Fully vaxxed and boosted people exposed to the virus should feel alright about more or less going about their business, the CDC guidance says, although it recommends being extra vigilant about masking for about 10 days. But if you’re behind on shots, or if you’re unvaccinated, the CDC recommends staying at home and avoiding contact with others until that fifth day after the exposure, then taking a test before getting up close with anyone else.