A doctor’s advice about testing and masks right now

As omicron continues to spread across the U.S. confusion has grown around how to get a test and what type to use, which masks are effective and how to safely isolate or quarantine and still work or care for a child.

To address the confusion and changing guidance, the PBS NewsHour’s Nicole Ellis spoke with Dr. Payal Patel, an infectious disease physician at the University of Michigan, who answered some common questions on testing, vaccines and masking.

Watch the full conversation in the live player above.

What tests should I be using?

The difference between antigen (or rapid) tests and PCR tests is the way they detect infection in your body. PCR tests are more sensitive at detecting living and dead virus particles, while antigen tests look for viral proteins and produce rapid results. The introduction of at-home antigen tests offer a new level of convenience, providing results in a matter of minutes without an appointment required. But they can be difficult to find. And some research has suggested rapid tests are less sensitive to omicron early in infection compared to other variants, leading to the possibility of false negatives especially early on in infection. PCR tests require visiting a testing site and can take several days to get results.

It can be confusing to know which test is best. Patel said that the first test you can get your hands on is the best one to take. The priority is getting a result. “Once you have a positive result or a negative result, it’s a lot easier to move forward and thinking about, do I need to quarantine or not?”

When should I test? What about isolation or quarantine?

“What is really difficult about COVID is that often you are the most contagious before you have symptoms,” Patel said — which means if you’re not showing symptoms it can be more difficult to detect the virus.

With omicron, experts believe the period of contagion is shorter, and the CDC recently shifted their recommendations for isolation after receiving positive test results from 10 days to 5 for vaccinated people– that shift was based on the period of contagiousness, according to Patel.

The CDC has its recommendations for people of varying levels of exposure and vaccination on its website.

Patel said the good news is that the vaccines are doing what they are intended to do in preventing deaths and severe illness.

What kind of mask should I use?

In the meantime, masks will continue to be part of our everyday lives. While some masking is better than no mask at all, Patel, along with a growing number of experts, feel “it’s probably time to put away the cloth masks,” and replace them with surgical, N95 or KN95 masks to help increase protection against the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Laura Santhanam contributed reporting to this piece.