You’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19: What should you do?

Should you be tested? What kind of test? What are the odds that you got it, too?

A group of friends, wearing masks, toasting.
What should you do if you have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19? (Getty Images)

The phone rings. It’s your friend. She says she tested positive for COVID-19 — and you spent time together just the other day. What should you do? 

Michael Stevens, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at VCU Health, explains what to do if a friend, family member or contact tracer tells you that you may be infected.

Do I need to be tested, or can I wait and see if I get symptoms? 

If you were within 6 feet of your friend for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, or you had close contact with her secretions — for instance, you were coughed or sneezed on, you shared drinking glasses or utensils, you kissed, etc. — the Virginia Department of Health recommends that you stay at home (self-quarantine) for 14 days since you last saw her and practice social distancing, staying at least 6 feet away from other people in your household. 

If you get tested, a negative result doesn’t mean you can end your quarantine. It can take up to 14 days to develop symptoms or test positive. If you develop symptoms during your quarantine, get tested.

What if I don’t get tested?

Self-quarantine and social distance for 14 days since your last contact with your friend.

Should I call my doctor? 

If you develop symptoms, call your doctor for advice. Even if you don’t have symptoms, your doctor can offer guidance on what to do.

[Editor’s note: VCU students who develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19, test positive for COVID-19, or have been informed they need to isolate or quarantine must contact the VCU COVID-19 call center at 1-804-MYCOVID to be connected with Student Health Services. Employees who develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19, test positive, or have been informed they need to isolate or quarantine must contact the VCU COVID-19 call center to be connected with Employee Health. Student Health Services or Employee Health will provide additional instructions regarding testing, isolation and/or quarantine.]

Where can I get the test? Does it matter where I get it? 

Many places in the community offer testing. Tests are of widely different quality, and many can provide inaccurate results (false positives or false negatives). If you think you might have COVID-19, a PCR test is best. You can call your doctor’s office for advice on where to get tested. 

[Editor’s note: VCU community members who report symptoms to either Student Health Services or Employee Health may be referred for COVID-19 testing at a location on campus. This will be conducted at no cost to students or employees.] 

Should I get the rapid test, the PCR test or the antibody test? What’s the difference?

The PCR test is the most accurate for detecting active infection. The rapid (antigen) test may be less accurate, and false-positive results are a concern. However, in many places these tests produce results more quickly. The antibody test can only tell if you previously had the infection. It won’t tell you whether you currently have COVID-19. Your doctor can help you decide which test is right for you. 

Do I need to be tested immediately, or should I wait a few days?

If you have symptoms, get tested right away.

I tried to schedule a test online, but the time slots were filled. What do I do now?

Call your doctor’s office. They may have advice on where to get tested. 

Is the COVID test free? 

COVID-19 tests are available at no cost throughout the U.S. Still, it’s wise to discuss this wherever you seek testing to find out if any charges might apply. 

Do I need to tell my boss or anyone else that I’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19?

Let your boss know. If you have spent significant time in close contact with anyone else (as defined above) since being exposed, you should also let them know.

I tested negative. Do I still need to self-quarantine? 

Yes, test results can be negative early in infection. Self-quarantine for the full 14 days from the time of last contact with your friend. 

If I self-quarantine, can I go for walks in my neighborhood, just by myself? 

No. Stay at home, isolated, as much as possible. You can go outside on your own property if you can reliably stay at least 6 feet away from other people. When in doubt about whether a potential activity is safe or not, call your local health department for advice.

What if someone in my household was exposed? Do I stay away from them until they test negative? Do I stay away from them for two weeks? What if it’s your child? 

Try to socially isolate as much as possible. This means staying at least 6 feet away, if you can. If your child was exposed, this may not be possible. In that case, consider wearing masks as much as possible. Everyone in your household should practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Clean high-touch household surfaces frequently. These include faucets and kitchen countertops, light switches, doorknobs and the TV remote. Everyone should monitor for symptoms and get tested if any symptoms arise. 

VCU Health is conducting a clinical trial to test a medication that would prevent COVID-19 infection among uninfected people. If someone in your household tests positive for COVID-19, other members of your household may be eligible to participate in the trial within 96 hours of the diagnosis. If that matches your situation, call (804) 628-1072 to see if you qualify for the trial.

If I self-quarantine, how will I get groceries?

Many grocery stores offer home delivery. If this is not an option and food access is an issue, call your local health department. They can help identify services to help you gain access to food during quarantine.

[Editor’s note: VCU student residents in isolation and quarantine housing will first receive a health and a meal kit with nonperishable items such as liquids, soups and snacks. Fresh meals will then be delivered daily from Dining Services. In isolation housing, residents will receive a full linen set with a pillow in their isolation room. For more information, visit] 

Should I tell the people I visited with before I knew I’d been exposed to someone with COVID-19? Do they need to self-quarantine or be tested? 

Let people know they might have been exposed if you spent 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of them within a 24-hour period, or if you shared secretions, as previously mentioned. The Virginia Department of Health does not recommend they self-quarantine or get tested, but they should practice careful hand hygiene, clean surfaces at home frequently and seek testing if they develop symptoms. 

What are the chances that I got COVID-19 from my friend?

It’s hard to say. It all depends on the degree and duration of exposure. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is highly contagious.

If I did get COVID-19 from my friend, what are the chances that I passed it on before I knew I had it? Does it matter how much time I spent with my friend?

It does matter how much time you spent with your friend. It’s hard to estimate the risk of you having passed on the virus to others. Some people with COVID-19 have little to no symptoms. People should wear masks when outside of their homes, especially when indoors, and try to stay at least 6 feet away from others. These things will help reduce spreading the infection and will help keep you and others safe. 

My friend developed only mild symptoms. Will my symptoms be mild, too?

Everyone is different. Your friend’s symptoms won’t predict how the virus will affect you.

If I test positive, will I be immune from COVID-19 – or can I get it again? Will I be able to go out without a face mask? Will I still have to social distance? 

Although reinfection appears rare at this point, it has been reported. At this time we don’t know how often, or for how long, infection will lead to immunity. Even if you have been infected, continue to wear a face mask when outside your house, especially when indoors, and try to stay at least 6 feet away from others. 

If no one has told me they tested positive for COVID-19, but I develop symptoms such as cold, flu or allergy symptoms, should I be tested for COVID-19 or wait it out? Should I tell people I visited with recently?

It’s not possible to differentiate COVID-19 from cold, flu or allergy symptoms. Call your doctor for advice on testing.

For more information on COVID-19, please visit VCU Health’s COVID-19 news site. For answers to frequently asked questions related to COVID-19, visit the Virginia Department of Health. Additional resources for VCU community members can be found at

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