Until novel coronavirus test capacity grows to meet the demand, only people with symptoms should seek a doctor's order for a test to see if they have the illness.

Coronavirus Test Shortage

Across the country, the demand has outpaced the national and state capacity to test people for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Health care providers and state officials are working hard to provide Marylanders with more access to coronavirus testing, but even as the testing capacity expands, they say these guidelines are still the best way to slow the spread of the virus and treat those who are sick.

Learn More: Coronavirus Testing FAQ

Getting Tested for COVID

  • Only those with coronavirus symptoms should seek testing. These symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. There are several good reasons for making it a high priority to test people with symptoms (read on to see why) until more tests become available.
  • You must have a doctor's order to get a test. Health providers are following testing and screening protocols set by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Call your doctor BEFORE going to the doctor's office, ER or urgent care center, to let them know your symptoms.

What to Do If:

You don't have a primary care doctor. You can contact your city or county health department for advice, or call the UMMS Nurse Call Line, a free 24/7 phone service to answer questions from the community about coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

You have mild symptoms. Stay home, contact your doctor, monitor your health, and avoid transmission to the rest of your household.

You are at risk because of your age or health condition. Be sure to contact your doctor.

You are having severe symptoms – difficulty breathing, pain or persistent pressure in your chest, or bluish lips or face. Don't waste time trying to get a test. Call 911 or go to the nearest ER or urgent care center.

COVID-19 Testing Only for People With Symptoms

Testing only those who have COVID-19 symptoms is the most effective way to use the limited tests available, says Gregory M. Schrank, MD, an infectious disease specialist who is co-chair of the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Committee for the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

It is possible to transmit coronavirus even if you are not symptomatic, so everyone should take precautions. However, it is most contagious when people have symptoms.

"Symptomatic persons have more virus in their respiratory tract than those who are not symptomatic. Also, their coughing and sneezing releases droplets in the air around them, on surfaces and on their hands, which makes them more contagious than someone with no symptoms," says Dr. Schrank, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and associate hospital epidemiologist for UMMC.

In the early stages of infection, before symptoms appear, it is possible the virus will not be detected by a test, according to the CDC, so a negative test might provide a false sense of security.

Staff at UMMS hospitals are gearing up to handle an expected surge of patients who become sick from COVID-19. Even in the hospital, testing will be limited to those who have symptoms, until more tests are available.

If You Are Well, but Worried

If you don't have symptoms, but are worried about getting sick, the best advice is to follow guidelines for social distancing, wash your hands often for a full 20 seconds with soap and water, use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available, and avoid touching your face. Those precautions will help you avoid getting sick more than a test would, says Dr. Schrank.

"Also remember that about 80 percent of cases are mild and people will recover on their own," he says.

People who are at higher risk – those age 70 or older, or with diabetes, heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – should monitor their health closely and contact their primary care practitioners with any concerns, Dr. Schrank says.

Drive-Up Coronavirus Testing

"The demand for testing is vastly outpacing the ability to carry it out, but the University of Maryland Medical System, in partnership with commercial labs and the Maryland Department of Health, is working to test as many people with symptoms of COVID-19 as quickly as possible," says Dr. Schrank.

Testing for the virus is primarily coordinated by the state, to best use the limited resources and available test kits. Drive-up sites continue to be a good model for testing those with a doctor's order, Dr. Shrank says. It limits the risk of transmission to and from other patients (compared to being inside a crowded medical office and emergency room) and keeps health care providers safer while still allowing them to swab the patient's nose or throat for a sample, take vital signs and observe patients for potential signs of serious illness.

"It's very understandable to have anxiety and stress about coronavirus," Dr. Schrank says. "But if you're worried at all, remember the best way to prevent infection of any kind is with frequent hand-washing, use of hand sanitizer and social distancing."