[Morningside Faculty and Staff] Health advisory: Important information about COVID-19 testing

Information about both the diagnostic and antibody tests to help you understand them and determine if they are something you should consider.

May 19, 2020

Dear Columbia Faculty and Staff,

There has been a recent increase in the availability and variety of coronavirus tests that look specifically for the SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus) infection, more commonly known as COVID-19.

We write to share information about both diagnostic and antibody tests to help you understand them and determine if they are something you should consider. For more information on the types of test, their benefits, costs, and availability, especially in New York State, please review our more detailed COVID-19 Testing Brief.

Diagnostic Tests:

The purpose of diagnostic tests, also known as “PCR tests”, is to determine if an individual currently has the novel coronavirus infection. This test is designed to detect if you currently have the virus, virus particles, or virus genetic material:

  • The test is performed with a sample from your nose, throat, or saliva
  • A positive test indicates that you CURRENTLY have COVID-19 infection
    • Some people may have a positive test while they have symptoms, and others will not have any symptoms, but they are considered infectious to others
    • Some people may continue to have a positive test even after they are feeling better, though it is unclear if they remain infectious to others
  • A negative test indicates that you do not have a COVID-19 infection AT THE TIME THE TEST WAS DONE
  • There are many different types of diagnostic tests available with different levels of accuracy
  • Some tests may be done within minutes in a health care provider’s office; others have to be sent to the laboratory and results may take several days

Serological or Antibody Tests:

The purpose of the serological tests, also known as antibody tests, is to determine evidence of the body’s immune response to the COVID-19 infection. They are not used to diagnose a current infection and are currently used to look at a population (rather than individual) level for patterns of prior infection (seroprevalence), for understanding of the immune response to the virus, or for identification of COVID-19 convalescent plasma donors.

  • Test is collected with a blood sample, either from a vein or through a finger stick
  • It detects antibodies that the body develops in response to a previous infection, usually 1-3 weeks after an infection
  • A positive test indicates that you likely have previously had a COVID-19 infection
    • Some tests may cross-react with other coronaviruses, giving a positive result due to the detection of other coronaviruses (a large family of viruses, including the virus that causes the common cold).
    • We do not know whether a positive antibody test means you are protected from future infection
    • We do not know how long the antibodies will last
    • A positive test should not be used for relaxation of other precautions in place
  • A negative test indicates you have not had a previous COVID-19 infection
    • It does not indicate that you are not currently infected (which requires a diagnostic test as above)
    • Repeat testing may be needed if you have had a previous illness consistent with COVID-19
  • There are many different types of these tests available, with different levels of accuracy

Testing is and will be an important part of our recovery from this pandemic. However, given the current uncertainty around the full utility of testing, please continue to practice essential prevention measures as recommended by public health officials: stay home as much as possible, wear a face covering in public as well as when physical distancing is unsustainable, hand wash frequently, sanitize frequently touched surfaces, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, and cough/sneeze into your elbow or cover it with a tissue and discard immediately. To know if you are currently infected, you must get a diagnostic test. 

Throughout this pandemic and Columbia’s response, our priority has been to provide guidance that puts our community members’ safety and well-being first and foremost. As we end the academic year in a manner never before seen in our history, please remember that Columbia continues to provide services and resources to support your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, wherever you may be. 

Virtual Visits

Virtual Visits allow you to connect with your provider from the comfort and safety of your own home, are convenient, and can help to keep you safe.

As Columbia faculty and staff, you can access your ColumbiaDoctors clinician who will offer you the same high level of expert, compassionate care that you expect in an office visit. To schedule a virtual visit with your Columbia provider, please call your provider’s office. To be connected with a Columbia provider, call 1-877-426-5637.

In addition:

  • NYP OnDemand is a virtual urgent care service available to all University employees, regardless of insurance coverage, to connect with an emergency medicine physician from Columbia or Weill Cornell Medicine.  
  • The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a free, confidential resource available 24/7 that gives you the opportunity to speak with a licensed mental health professional, who can direct you to additional resources as needed.  
  • Please visit the Columbia HR website for more details on available resources and benefits. 

If You are Sick 

If you have symptoms (including cough, fever, shortness of breath, sore throat), stay home. If your symptoms are mild, you may not need to seek medical care. If you are a member of a higher risk group (including immunocompromised or severe chronic medical conditions) or your symptoms are severe, such as difficulty breathing, contact your primary care provider (PCP) or go to the emergency room.    

Additional Information and Resources 

Please continue to visit the University COVID-19 website for updates to operations and for more information and resources to support you. The next several months will continue to challenge each and every one of us. As the physical, emotional, and economic toll of this pandemic compounds, we urge you to stand strong and prioritize your well-being and that of the community. Please continue to exercise utmost caution, listen to sound public health guidance, and critically engage with ongoing developments as this pandemic continues to unfold.

With care for our community,  
Melanie Bernitz, MD, MPH   
Associate Vice President and Medical Director, Columbia Health   
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)