Testing and Treatment

There are many different coronavirus tests out there. They fall into two main groups: diagnostic tests and antibody tests. This information is intended to help you understand these tests and determine whether either may be right for you.

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnostic, or polymerase chain reaction (PCR), tests are used to determine whether you currently have the virus.

New York State is increasing efforts to provide tests to diagnose those who may currently have the novel coronavirus.  As of June 1, 2020, New York City announced universal COVID-19 testing for all New Yorkers through the Test & Trace Corps initiative. This means that anyone can get a diagnostic test at no cost to the individual without having to prequalify.

Any New Yorker can now get the diagnostic test at one of the more than 150 testing sites around the City. Please visit nyc.gov/CovidTest or call 311 to find the nearest testing site.

Students can Contact Columbia Health (Morningside students) or CUIMC Student Health Service (CUIMC students).

Columbia staff returning to work

Members of the Columbia community may be eligible for diagnostic testing for COVID-19 prior to returning to work. Here are the details regarding testing availability and locations. Testing is also available through Columbia Doctors and other clinical locations.

If you are asymptomatic, have not been in contact with a COVID-19 case, and get a diagnostic test, you can continue to work while awaiting your test result. As per current guidance, please continue to wear face covering whenever you are around others, including appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), if appropriate.

If you are asymptomatic and have been in contact of a COVID-19 case, testing is recommended. Furthermore, please self-quarantine for 14 days from the time of exposure. Please see additional guidance below for returning to work.

If you develop a fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, such as cough or difficulty breathing, contact your health care provider. 

Updated June 17, 2020 11:50 AM

Antibody Tests

Antibody, or serologic, tests determine evidence of the body’s immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 infection (the virus that causes COVID-19). They are not used to diagnose a current infection and are currently used to look at population-level patterns of prior infection (seroprevalence) to understand the immune response to the virus or to identify COVID-19 convalescent plasma donors. Serologic tests detect antibodies that are produced in response to germs in the body, including viruses and bacteria. Antibodies usually take 3 to 4 weeks to develop after an infection. 

Serologic testing is used to determine the rate of COVID-19 infection as a way to inform health policy. It is not used to diagnose if someone has an active infection.

Antibody, or serologic, testing is not used to diagnose an active infection. In New York State, these tests are prioritized for essential workers.

Furthermore, this test is not a clear indicator of immunity to the novel coronavirus so may not inform whether it is safe for you to go back to work or engage in other activities without risk. Public health officials do not recommend universal antibody testing for the novel coronavirus at this time.

In New York State, antibody tests are being prioritized for essential workers. Private testing facilities and commercial labs may provide antibody tests but are not directly associated with New York State Department of Health efforts and have differing levels of accuracy and reliability.

What to Expect at the Testing Location

If you have been advised to get a diagnostic or antibody test, proceed to a testing location. Wear a face covering while you travel to the location and maintain physical distancing.

A health care professional will be wearing protective equipment—including a mask, face shield, gown, and gloves—and will use one of two methods to collect a sample:

  • Nasal-pharyngeal swab: A health care professional will insert a swab (like a long-stemmed Qtip®) into one of your nostrils and roll it around, making sure to leave the swab inserted for several seconds to absorb secretions. The swab will then be removed. If not enough fluid was collected from one nostril, the process will be repeated on your other nostril.
     
  • Saliva sample and self-administered swab: A health care professional will provide you with a clean glass/plastic vial for your saliva sample and a small swab (regular Qtip ® sized) to collect your nasal samples. Instructions will be provided to you on how to correctly spit into the vial and how to use the swab to collect fluid from your nostrils. The health care professional will observe the collection process and gather the samples upon completion.

The speed at which individuals receive test results will vary, so ask the health care provider when to expect your results. Test results may be sent via phone, text message, or online patient portal.

If you test positive, this means you currently have a COVID-19 infection: Stay home, separate yourself from others in your home, and monitor your symptoms. Some people may have a positive test while they have symptoms; 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. If you have an emergency warning sign (including bluish lips or face, trouble breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, disorientation), call 911. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides additional guidance.

Contact tracing: New York City is responsible for identifying and tracing your contacts and informing them of their risk of infection, advising them regarding self-quarantine and testing, and providing the necessary support, in addition to maintaining confidentiality.

If you test negative, this means you do NOT have a COVID-19 infection at the time the test was taken: This could change tomorrow or next week. Practice essential prevention measures as recommended by public health officials. Stay home as much as possible, wear a face covering when physical distancing is unsustainable, wash your hands frequently, sanitize frequently touched surfaces, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, and cough and sneeze into your elbow or cover it with a tissue and throw the tissue away immediately.

If your result is indeterminate, you are considered infected with a low level of the virus: Follow above guidance as though you received a positive result.

Returning to work after testing positive

If you test positive and are symptomatic, you must meet all of the following criteria to return to work:

  • At least 10 days have passed since the onset of symptoms.
  • At least 72 hours have passed without fever and without the use of antipyretic medications, e.g., acetaminophen, ibuprofen.
  • Marked improvement in symptoms.

If you test positive and are not symptomatic, you can return to work as long as you remain asymptomatic after 10 days have passed since your test was conducted. You do not need to get another diagnostic test in order to return to work

Faculty and staff with positive PCR tests should obtain guidance from their primary care provider or from Workforce Health & Safety (WFHS) at CUIMC, if test was done there, regarding their health and how to protect their close contacts.

When you return to work, you need to continue to use all protective measures against COVID-19 because it is not known if someone can be re-infected with SARS-CoV-2.

Last updated: June 17, 2020, 11:50 AM

A health care professional will sterilize one of your fingertips and prick your finger to collect small drops of blood on a piece of paper called a dried-blood spot card. Once the card dries, it will be sent to the lab for testing. Alternatively, a traditional blood sample from your arm may be taken.

The speed at which individuals receive test results will vary, so ask the health care provider when to expect your results. Test results may be sent via phone, text message, or online patient portal. Regardless of the results, continue to practice essential prevention measures as recommended by public health officials: Shelter in place, wear a face covering when physical distancing is unsustainable, hand wash frequently, sanitize frequently touched surfaces, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, and cough or sneeze into your elbow or cover it with a tissue and throw the tissue away immediately. To know if you are currently infected, you must get a diagnostic test.

Treatment for COVID-19

There is no specific antiviral treatment recommended for COVID-19 infection, though many are under investigation. People infected with COVID-19 are treated with supportive care to help relieve symptoms. In most cases, people can be treated at home and do not need to go out for medical care or treatment.

Managing the Cost of Testing and Treatment

Columbia University Faculty & Staff should contact their primary care provider or visit a free-standing testing facility unless eligible to receive services at a Columbia testing location.

Students can Contact Columbia Health (Morningside students) or CUIMC Student Health Service (CUIMC students).

Per recent federal legislation, insurance plans and providers must cover the cost of both types of novel coronavirus test and related office visits (no matter whether the visit was telehealth, in-person, urgent care, or emergency room). This means you should not be charged any co-pays or coinsurance for these services. Contact your insurance company with questions related to coverage for COVID-19 related care.

If you do not have health insurance, you may be charged for the tests and related services. However, if your health care provider can verify that you do not have health insurance through an individual, employer-sponsored, Medicare or Medicaid plan, you may not be charged if they are able to submit for reimbursement for the charges from the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund. If you pay for services and your health care provider is later reimbursed for those charges through the program, your health care provider must reimburse you.

In New York City: Any New Yorker can now get the diagnostic test at one of the more than 150 testing sites around the City. Please visit nyc.gov/CovidTest or call 311 to find the nearest testing site.

In New York State: The diagnostic test is free to all eligible New Yorkers if taking the test has been recommended to you after calling the New York State COVID-19 hotline at 888-364-3065 or completing the NYSDOH online assessment.

Individuals who are given the antibody test under the direction of government health officials do not have to pay for the test.

Last updated: June 17, 2020, 11:50 AM

Students on the Columbia University Aetna Student Health Plan

Aetna Student Health will waive co-insurance for all diagnostic testing related to COVID-19. This policy will cover the test kit for patients who meet CDC guidelines for testing. Aetna will waive the member costs associated with diagnostic testing at any authorized location.

Through existing care management programs, Aetna will proactively reach out to members most at-risk for COVID-19. Care managers will walk members through what they can do to protect themselves, where to get information on the virus, and where to go to get tested if clinically indicated. Should hospitalization occur, it will be treated as any other sickness and paid according to the plan design.

Referrals for off-campus healthcare

If you are enrolled in the Columbia Plan, your primary care provider is your Columbia Health Medical Services (Morningside) or Student Health Services (CUIMC) clinician, and your initial mental health provider is at Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or Mental Health Services (CUIMC).

Hospital emergency rooms and urgent care facilities do not require a referral, regardless of your location within the United States. Students more than 50 miles away from campus do not need referrals for other services. For students within 50 miles of campus, referrals for off-campus care for most other services are mandatory from your on-campus provider.

There are some situations when a referral may not be required. Please review these specifics before accessing care, as Columbia Health and Student Health Services do not issue retroactive referrals and accessing care without a required referral may result in increased out-of-pocket costs for which you are responsible.

Existing referrals

Referrals are issued by condition, so if you are transitioning care to a new provider for the same condition you most likely do not need a new referral. If you are unsure, contact the Insurance Office for guidance at studentinsurance@columbia.edu on the Morningside campus or shsinsurance@cumc.columbia.edu at CUIMC. Referrals for medical care are valid through August 14, 2020. Existing referrals for mental health are valid for the duration of your enrollment in the Columbia Plan.

Requesting new referrals

Morningside:  Send a secure message via the Patient Portal to your primary care provider at Columbia Health.

CUIMC: Call Student Health Services at 212-305-3400.

Both campuses have medical and mental health providers available to issue and renew referrals by phone or virtual visits to expedite access for plan members. Morningside students can also request a referral by phone at 212-854-7426 (medical) or 212-854-2878 (mental health).