As omicron continues to spread, more people are receiving texts like this one: “I’m sorry for the news, but someone from Friday tested positive for COVID and now I have it… Just wanted to make you aware.”

Perhaps you weren’t knowingly exposed, but your symptoms say otherwise. So, ‘What now?’ Equally important as knowing what to do next is what not to do – especially as health systems care for sick patients.

Dr. David Priest smiles for a photo.
Dr. David Priest

It’s imperative that people get the care they need, when they need it – in the right place. And the emergency room is likely not the best option, said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer.

“If you’re critically ill or you have COVID and you can’t breathe, certainly seek emergency care. But if you’re otherwise healthy and just looking for a COVID test, please do not go to the emergency department,” Priest said.

Here are 5 things to know, including advice on using at-home COVID tests now being distributed for free by the U.S. government.

1. Symptoms to watch for.

Omicron symptoms vary slightly from earlier variants, Priest said, and most commonly present as upper respiratory infections, sore throat, fever, headache, cough and congestion.

"I don't personally see as much of the loss of taste and smell we saw earlier in the pandemic,” he said. “So, these variants all have a different predilection for different parts of human anatomy and that can make their presentation a bit different. If you have symptoms of fever, sore throat, headache, congestion and cough right now, there's a pretty good chance you have COVID given the number of cases we're seeing.”

Other COVID symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
  • Chill, muscle or body aches.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea.
  • New loss of taste or smell.

2. Take advantage of our self-guided assessment tool.

Individuals with questions about whether they should seek a COVID test are encouraged to use Novant Health’s online self-guided assessment tool. This assessment is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be used if patients are experiencing a life-threatening emergency.

Established Novant Health patients can also call their primary care physician’s office with questions related to COVID symptoms or testing.

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3. Are rapid antigen tests a good option?

Rapid antigen tests are available free from the U.S. government, for purchase online and in drug stores (if you can find one), while others opt for a professional to do the swabbing. PCR lab tests are most reliable in determining if someone has COVID, Priest said, though rapid tests are also considered an essential tool in reducing virus spread.

“We shouldn’t dismiss rapid tests altogether. They’re pretty accurate in detecting COVID and even omicron, but they can be falsely negative in some cases,” he cautioned.

The bottom line on rapid tests: Pay attention not only to your test result, but what symptoms you have.

“If you have all the signs and symptoms of COVID, I wouldn’t rely on a single rapid test to determine you’re negative,” Priest said. “Let’s say you were around someone with COVID and now you have a fever or sore throat. If your rapid antigen test says it’s negative, I’d isolate for a day or two, then do another one. Essentially, I’m encouraging people to do a couple over a few days to ensure that they truly do not have COVID."

Requesting your free COVID-19 tests

In an effort to bring widespread COVID-19 testing to all Americans, the White House launched a way for people to order free at-home test kits.

Every home in the U.S. is eligible to order up to four tests through They are free and will be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

If you are unable to access the website, request the free at-home tests by calling 1-800-232-0233.

How to use an at-home test

If you're fully vaccinated and have been exposed to COVID, the CDC recommends testing five to seven days after your initial exposure for best accuracy.

For anyone who is unvaccinated (or eligible for a booster but has not received it), it's recommended they test immediately after a COVID exposure, the CDC said, and again five to seven days later.

To ensure as much accuracy as possible:

  • Make sure your test is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Find a list of FDA-approved tests here.
  • Check the expiration date and make sure the test isn't damaged.
  • Do not open the at-home test until you are ready to use it.
  • Before you begin, wash your hands and disinfect the area around you.
  • Read and follow the manufacturer's directions closely.
  • Use a timer if necessary for some steps, such as swabbing your nose or waiting for results.
  • Wait the instructed amount of time before reading the results. Incorrect results can appear if the test is read too soon or too late, the CDC said.
  • Do not reuse any testing materials and discard all parts of the test.
  • Clean surfaces used during testing and again, wash your hands.

4. How to schedule a COVID-19 test.

  • Novant Health COVID testing locations and hours are located here. To help reduce wait times and ensure availability of tests, people are asked to make an appointment. Please note, these testing locations are intended for asymptomatic patients with potential exposure and symptomatic patients. And rapid tests are not available at these locations.
  • Novant Health patients can call their primary care physician’s office to inquire about testing. Or consider scheduling a virtual care exam to find out whether a COVID test is necessary.
  • Testing continues to be available at Novant Health GoHealth Urgent Care centers for symptomatic and asymptomatic patients, depending on location. Individuals can save their spot online or schedule a virtual visit here.
  • Asymptomatic patients who are seeking travel, return-to-work or return-to-school clearance are instead asked to use the NCDHHS website to find a location that best suits their needs.

5. What are the current recommendations on isolation and quarantine?

People with COVID should isolate for five days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. If they’re improving or have no symptoms at the end of that period, isolation is no longer required but guidance suggests they wear a mask around others for five additional days.

“I think this change was brought on by newer data that people with omicron are most likely to be infectious one to two days prior to getting symptoms, as well as the desire to balance safety and keeping society open,” Priest said.

The CDC also updated their recommendations on quarantining if someone is exposed to COVID but asymptomatic. Unvaccinated or unboosted persons should quarantine for five days followed by "strict masking" for five more days.

“If your vaccination is up-to-date, meaning you're not yet eligible for a booster or you've been boosted, you do not have to quarantine or stay home if exposed to COVID. But the CDC suggests you wear a mask for 10 days when around others. And in both cases, they did say to consider getting a test on the fifth day,” he added.

Knowing where to seek care is important, as are COVID vaccines and boosters. Data has shown that three doses of Pfizer's or Moderna's vaccine provides a "significant boost in protection against omicron. It's not 100% but like I've said, nothing in medicine is," Priest said.

And don’t forget your mask next time you head out the door.