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Guidance for Pennsylvania COVID-19 Testing

From the confirmation of the first case of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, every county in the Commonwealth has been affected. COVID-19 is a contagious disease that spreads rapidly from person to person from exposure from individuals that may be symptomatic (that is, having fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and loss of taste or smell) or asymptomatic.  Many areas of Pennsylvania are experiencing "community spread", which means that COVID-19 is being transmitted through unknown sources and not from a known infected area. 

The following general considerations for diagnostic testing are offered as guidance with the intention of preventing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19 person to person and to the greater community. This guidance speaks to the recommended priorities for diagnostic testing only, without addressing related issues, such as testing procedures or payment.1

Types of Testing Currently Available:

Two kinds of tests are available for COVID-19: diagnostic tests and antibody tests.2

  • A diagnostic test identifies a current infection.
  • An antibody test identifies a previous infection.

The Commonwealth offers this guidance regarding diagnostic tests only. This guidance does not address antibody, or serology, tests.  Since it can take 1-3 weeks after infection to make antibodies, an antibody test may not be able to show if a person has a current infection. The Commonwealth does not know yet if having antibodies to the virus can protect a person from getting infected with the virus again, or how long that protection might last. At this time, the Commonwealth is working closely with the medical and scientific community to better understand the applicability and role of antibody testing. Get more information on rapid point of care tests.

Priorities for COVID-19 Testing: (Diagnostic testing only)

High Priority

  • Persons with symptoms of potential COVID-19 infection, including fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, diarrhea, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, fatigue, and/or new loss of taste or smell.
  • Hospitalized patients who have likely been exposed to COVID-19, regardless of symptoms.
  • Residents in long-term care facilities or other congregate living settings, including prisons and shelters, regardless of symptoms.
  • Persons >65 years of age, regardless of symptoms.
  • Persons with underlying medical conditions, regardless of symptoms.
  • Persons in critical and/or high-risk occupations, regardless of symptoms:
    • Workers in inpatient and outpatient health care facilities.
    • Workers in long term care facilities or congregate living settings.
    • Emergency/first responders and public safety personnel, including child protective services, adult protective services, and domestic violence providers.
    • Public health personnel.
    • Food supply chain workers (including farmers, food processing facilities and warehouses, and grocery store workers).
    • Workers in critical infrastructure occupations.
    • Pharmacists and pharmacist technicians.
    • Military personnel.
  • Persons likely to have been exposed to COVID-19 diagnosed individuals and identified through public health investigations (i.e., contact tracing) and who are experiencing any symptoms

Medium Priority

  • Persons likely to have been exposed to COVID-19 diagnosed individuals and identified through public health investigations (i.e., contact tracing) but without symptoms
  • Asymptomatic individuals as determined by the individual's attending health care provider for medical diagnostic purposes based on the provider's medical judgment in providing direct care to the individual.

If You Are a Provider Wanting to Test a Patient

For testing through the PA Department of Health (DOH), consultation with the DOH IS REQUIRED.  Call us at 1-877-PA-HEALTH for a consultation and advise the patient to stay home.  Call for consultation if:

  • The patient is a contact of a confirmed case and is sick;
  • The patient resides in a congregate care setting and is sick*;
  • The patient is a healthcare worker and is sick;
  • The patient is hospitalized with relevant symptoms and has no alternative diagnosis.

For testing through a commercial laboratory, consultation with the PA Department of Health is NOT REQUIRED, and you can test through a commercial laboratory if:

  • The patient does not meet the above criteria, but is symptomatic;
  • The patient does not meet the above criteria, is asymptomatic, but wants to be tested.

*If the DOH or local health department has determined that COVID-19 is already present in a congregate care setting, additional testing of ill residents should be performed through a commercial laboratory.

View labs approved in PA to process COVID-19 samples.

1 Regarding payment, the nature of the individual's health care coverage – whether commercial insurance, employer self-funded, Medicare, Medicaid, or other government program or coverage option – will determine if and how the test may be paid for, including any limitations. 


Resources for More Information

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​Date created: 3/14/2020; Date updated: 9/22/2020