Want to get a COVID-19 test in time for the holidays? Here's what you need to know

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The holiday season is fully upon us and (unlike most years) you're desperate to see your family. So you figure you'll get a COVID-19 test beforehand and everything will be OK. Unfortunately, it's 2020 and things are not as simple as that.

Here's what you need to know about COVID-19 testing in the San Francisco Bay Area around the holidays.

Where can I get tested?

There are hundreds of COVID-19 testing sites around the Bay Area. Some are city-run, some are state-run and others are run by healthcare providers or private companies.

ABC7 News' data journalism team created the map below that plots out every testing location in the nine Bay Area counties. Zoom in to see the options near you.

Having trouble viewing the map? Click here to open it in a new window.

Can I get tested if I don't have symptoms? Can I get a test just as a precaution before seeing people or traveling?

This depends on the testing location. For example, San Francisco's city-run testing sites are reserving appointments for residents with symptoms or essential workers who come in contact with others at their jobs amid a spike in coronavirus cases. Asymptomatic people in San Francisco are asked to seek tests from their healthcare provider.

In other cases, you can get a test but your results may be delayed if you're asymptomatic. Kaiser Permanente, which has testing locations around the Bay Area, prioritizes processing symptomatic cases in its labs. When there's high demand for testing, asymptomatic test samples may be sent to private labs for processing, and could result in a delay in getting results back.

When should I get tested before seeing friends or family?

Here's the deal: A COVID-19 test only tests the amount of viral load in your system at the time the sample is taken. You could be exposed to the virus immediately after, and the test wouldn't reflect that. You could also have been exposed to the virus a few days before your COVID-19 test, and your viral load may not be high enough to be detected.

"Keep in mind that a negative test result now only shows your status at the time you got the test," Kaiser explains on its website. "It doesn't prevent you from getting or spreading the virus while interacting with others. Because of these risks, we don't recommend relying on a test to decide if you should attend a social gathering."

Other medical experts suggest self-isolating for two weeks prior to seeing anyone outside your household, and getting a test a few days before you plan to see a family member or travel. But remember, if you're traveling you could exposed mid-journey.

What type of test should I get?

PCR tests are generally considered the "gold standard" of coronavirus tests because they're more sensitive and less likely to deliver a false negative. However, PCR tests need to be sent to labs overnight, so you'll never get a result on the same day. Antigen tests are quicker -- you could get a result in as soon as a few minutes, depending on the testing provider -- but are considered less accurate.

How much does a COVID-19 test cost? Are tests free?

"There are no out-of-pocket costs for medically-necessary testing" in California, says the state. If you have insurance, your insurance company will billed. If not, the state will cover the cost.

Rapid testing for travel is another story. Those are done by private companies and can cost upwards of $300.

What is the safest way to spend the holidays with friends and family?

You're not going to like this answer, but the safest way to spend the holidays is to celebrate only with members of your household.

If you're going to take the risk and see others, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services Secretary, outlined some ways to make gatherings safer. See his tips in the video below:
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Dr. Mark Ghaly explains how to reduce risk if gathering with friends and family amid the holiday season and the coronavirus pandemic.

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