As people consider Thanksgiving travel amid a fall surge in COVID-19 cases around the U.S., linesto gettestsin someplaces have grown longer.
But should you get a COVID-19 diagnostic test if you're traveling home to visit loved ones, including older relatives?
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Testing as close as possible to the time that you're traveling is helpful, medical experts say, but that doesn't mean that it's a sure way to prevent the spread.
"We're in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. We shouldn't sugar coat this with ways around doing what is the safest, which is not going," Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University Hospital, wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
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Here's what you need to consider as you decide whether to get tested and travel:
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A test is better than no test. But should you travel at all?
A more pertinent question may be whether traveling at all is best, the doctors agree.
Dr. Christopher Sanford, an associate professor of family medicine and global health at University of Washington, said that is an individual decision and will differ across family situations and medical histories.
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However, "the truth is still the best way not spread this is to not be around people," he said. And, "this is advice that I wince as a give, because it's a little cruel to tell people not to socialize with their family and friends."
"We cannot test our way out of risk," Wolfe added. Every decision about if you should travel, when to get tested and what kind of test to get affects the balance of risk and reward in seeing family for Thanksgiving, but, "you have no increase in risk if you stay where you are," Wolfe said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended against travel for Thanksgiving.
But ultimately, if your decision is to travel, getting a test is better than not, even if the lines and turnaround times are long. "It's much better than doing nothing," said Dr. William Greenough, an infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
Tests are a moment in time
A COVID-19 diagnostic test can show if you have an active coronavirus infection, according to the CDC, but a negative result "only means that you did not have COVID-19 at the time of testing."
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"People need to recognize that a test today only proves you're OK today. It says nothing about whether you might be incubating, or exposed, and won't turn positive tomorrow or the next day," Wolfe said.
The average incubation period for COVID-19 is about five days, Sanford said, but it could take as long as 14 days to incubate.
If you see a friend who is infected on Sunday, you may not start getting sick until Friday — and a test on Monday may be negative, but you'll still potentially be spread the virus to your family while you're chatting and laughing and eating dinner on Thursday, he said.
It is also possible to be exposed after getting tested. For example, if you get a test then take a flight to visit family, you could be exposed on the plane. (Studieshave painteda muddled picture about how safe airplane travel is.)
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Testing is not a replacement for social distancing
While a test can tell you if you're likely negative on a given day, it should not replace other measures like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart and social distancing, experts say.
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"If you have been in any close group contact for the last two weeks, you should be quarantining for a two week period," Greenough said. "The test will not be the final arbiter until two weeks have passed."
A negative test result is "not a failsafe. It's not protective," added Sanford. "I do worry people think they are going to be safe if they get tested."
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While the risk is lower if someone is not traveling in a group and can actually maintain relatively safe distances from others, that becomes harder to do in the colder months, Wolfe said.
When to get tested if you are traveling
Getting a test and a result the day you are traveling would be ideal, Greenough said, but that is not always possible across the United States.
In some places, it can take four to five days to get test results, and getting a test five days before your trip is less representative than one the day before, Wolfe said.
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A rapid antigen test could tell someone within minutes of getting in the car to travel whether they are positive, but the tests are less accurate compared to molecular tests, Sanford said.
Another challenge is that testing likely won't detect an infection immediately after an exposure to the virus. Tests are "markedly less accurate" early on in the incubation period compared to a test on someone who is symptotic and a week in, he added.
COVID-19 means Thanksgiving alone for many Americans
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, many will skip the big feast and spend Thanksgiving alone to protect themselves and their families.Her mother is a cardiology nurse, her sister works at a nursing home and Broderick has been teaching in-person classes as an assistant biology professor at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Since all of them interact with people outside of their immediate families each day, exposing them to COVID-19, Broderick said she will stay home.
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A health care employee works at a walk-up COVID-19 testing site, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Miami. Florida health officials have reported a steady increase in the number of new coronavirus cases each day over the past month and a half, though the numbers are no where near the peak in July.
Salt Lake County Health Department public health nurse Lee Cherie Booth performs a coronavirus test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he is feeling "frustrated" with the state's rising coronavirus numbers as new cases and hospitalizations continued a streak of new record highs on Thursday.
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El Paso county begins using Ascarate Park as new mega COVID-10 testing site Wednesday, Oct. 28, in El Paso.
A Rapid Engagement Team, comprised of employees from the Department of Public Health and Social Services, Department of Public Works, Guam Homeland Security/Office of Civil Defense and others, are assisted by Guam National Guard soldiers, during the second day of free COVID-19 testing for the residents living in the Gill Baza and Zero Down subdivisions in Yigo on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Of the tests conducted on Thursday with 124 residents at the subdivisions, 48 were tested positive of having contracted COVID-19, said Janela Carrera, DPHSS spokesperson.
Healthcare workers walk to a tent, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at a COVID-19 testing site outside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. State officials say Florida has surpassed 500,000 coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, testing is ramping up following a temporary shutdown of some sites because of Tropical Storm Isaias.
Department of Public Health and Social Services personnel, health professionals and volunteers collect information and swab samples from residents during an extended outreach for free COVID-19 testing at the Asan-Maina mayor's office on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Residents were offered the option of walk-up testing or drive-through testing being conducted at the site.
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A swab sample is collected from a resident by Department of Public Health and Social Services personnel during an extended outreach for free COVID-19 testing conducted at the Asan-Maina mayor's office on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Residents were offered the option of walk-up testing or drive-through testing being conducted at the site.
A boy receives a free COVID-19 test at a St. Johns Well Child & Family Center mobile clinic set up outside Walker Temple AME Church in South Los Angeles amid the coronavirus pandemic on July 15, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. A clinic official said most of the residents they are currently testing in their South L.A. clinics are Latinos. According to the California Department of Health, Latinos are currently 2.9 times more likely than white people to test positive for the coronavirus. California reported over 11,000 new coronavirus infections today, the most in the state in a single day since the pandemic began.
An aerial view shows a long line of cars July 15, 2020, at a COVID-19 testing site at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.
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Staff at direct cars at a drive-through COVID-19 test site, July 15, 2020 at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, California. - Los Angeles County Public health director Barbara Ferrer said July 15 that "We are in an alarming and dangerous phase" of the coronavirus pandemic and access to testing in hard-hit communities would be dramatically expanded.
Leiana Smith, a registered nurse, right, explains the COVID-19 testing process to Gustavo Carrillo, left, at a new walk-up site Thursday, July 16, 2020, in the parking lot of 2001 W. Lincoln Ave. in Yakima, Washington.
Medical workers from New York wearing personal protective equipments test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at temporary testing site for COVID-19 in Higher Dimensions Church on July 17, 2020 in Houston, Texas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dispatched medical workers from New York State to assist with the spread of COVID-19 in Houston, and particularly in the hard-hit communities of color.
People stand in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a free walk-up testing site on July 11, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. With nearly 4,500 new cases of COVID-19 being reported over the previous day the City of Atlanta has rolled back to a Phase I status.
Vehicles wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site at the Miami Beach Convention Center during the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday, July 12, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla. Fla. on Sunday reported the largest single-day increase in positive coronavirus cases in any one state since the beginning of the pandemic.
Drivers wait to be tested for COVID-19 at the Hard Rock Stadium parking lot July 6 in Miami Gardens, Fla. The state is experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases and plans to close some businesses to combat the rise.
Lillian Palacios, left, holds her son, Daniel, 7, as a healthcare professional prepares to take a sample from him at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site Friday, June 26, 2020, in Houston.
A Tampa Public Safety Officer signals drivers where to go at a coronavirus testing site at the Lee Davis Community Resource Center on June 25, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. The USF Health system partnered with the Hillsborough County Government to provide coronavirus testing at several location sites throughout the county. Florida is currently experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, as the state reached a new record for single-day infections on Wednesday with 5,511 new cases.
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Physician's assistant Jessica DeMarco places a swab into a vial after collecting a sample from a patient tested for COVID-19 at the Sangamon County Health Clinic's drive-up testing site at 2833 South Grand Ave. East in Springfield, Ill., Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Dr. Careyana Brenham waits with a swab to test a patient for COVID-19 at the Sangamon County Health Clinic's drive-up testing site at 2833 South Grand Ave. East in Springfield, Ill., Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
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A medical professional works at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site at Cambridge Health Alliance Somerville Hospital on April 28, 2020 in Somerville, Massachusetts. The city of Somerville is offering free testing to any resident who wants it, and requiring residents to wear masks in public spaces in order to combat the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
A medical professional administers a COVID-19 test during a drive-thru testing station on March 26, 2020 in Daly City, Calif. New coronavirus testing stations are opening up each day in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Laboratory Technologist Roger Knauf, left, and Sarah Dell, test for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus at Gravity Diagnostics in Covington, Kentucky Tuesday, March 24, 2020. The work is conducted in a secure area and the actual test is done behind glass. The lab was founded in 2016 and was approved for COVID-19 testing on March 16. The CEO is Tony Remington.
A healthcare worker with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine tests a patient for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing site Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Las Vegas. UNLV Medicine, the clinical arm of the UNLV School of Medicine, started conducting COVID-19 testing by appointment for people who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Police officers direct drivers as they enter Glen Island Park in New Rochelle, N.Y March 22, 2020. The park was the first site set in Westchester County set up for Covid-19 testing. New Rochelle was the epicenter of the spread of the Covid-19 virus after congregants of a neighborhood synagogue were the first to be diagnosed with the virus.
A healthcare worker prepares to swab a driver, Sunday, March 22, 2020, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. The National Guard opened a coronavirus drive-thru testing site Sunday testing first responders. On Monday, they planned to expand it to people at least 65 years old who are showing symptoms of the illness.
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Workers wearing protective clothing conduct test samples inside a plastic tent, Thursday, March 19, 2020, at a state-managed coronavirus drive-through testing site that just opened on Staten Island in New York. It is the first drive-through site in New York City, although there others located in New Rochelle and at Jones Beach on Long Island, and more around the state.
A member of the New York state National Guard holds a sign for drivers who came for COVID-19 testing, Thursday, March 19, 2020, at a state-managed coronavirus drive-through test site operating on it's first day on Staten Island in New York.
Hospital personnel assist people at a coronavirus screening tent outside the Brooklyn Hospital Center, Thursday, March 19, 2020 in New York. If they determine that someone may have the virus they are brought into the hospital for a full test.
Georgia Esoteric and Molecular (GEM) Lab research associate Yasmeen Jilani, seated, tests possible coronavirus samples at the GEM lab at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Ga., Thursday morning March 19, 2020.
New York State Department of Health worker gives instructions to a person seeking a coronavirus test at a COVID-19 drive-through testing site at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Wantagh, N.Y. New York is among roughly ten states that have set up their own drive-through testing centers, as state and local leaders look to compensate for an acute shortage of tests in the United States.
Clark Drobek works at processing collections of swabs taken from various patients to see if they tested negative or positive for the Coronavirus COVID-19. The pathology and laboratory medicine labs at the Henry Ford Hospital on W. Grand Blvd in Detroit , Mich. were very busy on March 17, 2020 with many medical technologists and laboratory managers working long hours.
Individuals are tested for COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus at a mobile clinic set up in the parking lot at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix on the morning of March 18, 2020. Only Mayo Clinic patients with a doctor's order could use the mobile clinic. A slow but steady stream of vehicles was passing through the mobile clinic on Wednesday morning.
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