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Worried About COVID Symptoms After Thanksgiving? What to Do Now

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A shot taken from above of a group of people around a table, eating dinner and raising their glasses in a toast.
With the holiday season comes the threat of respiratory viruses like COVID.  (fauxels via Pexels)

“Is my sore throat, slight cough or runny nose COVID?”

It’s a concern that’s familiar to many of us, after almost four years of the ongoing pandemic. You go out, perhaps in a crowded space — or gather with friends and family inside for the holidays — and a few days later, you start to feel … a little off. (Or maybe you just start to feel immediately sick and gross.)

Since many folks in the Bay Area traveled and gathered this past week for Thanksgiving celebrations, perhaps you’re one of those people waking up this morning wondering if you have COVID symptoms.

If that’s you, keep calm and keep reading for everything you need to know about COVID symptoms, the newer HV.1 variant, and where to find a free COVID test. You can also jump to:

What are COVID symptoms to look for in 2023?

After a summer swell of cases fueled partly by the EG.5 “Eris” variant, COVID rates in California fell — but now the numbers appear to be slowly ticking back up, just as the holiday season approaches.

So which COVID variants are around and waiting to infect you right now? After the summer of EG.5, the newer HV.1 subvariant has risen to become the most prevalent strain nationally. One bit of good news: both these subvariants are descendants of the XBB omicron strain, which the new COVID vaccine is formulated to target and help protect against. Read more on how to find the new COVID vaccine for free near you.

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, confirms that neither HV.1 nor EG.5 have any surprising wild card symptoms — they’re the same COVID symptoms you’re used to hearing about from previous variants, or at least that’s how it looks right now. He advises you to look out for a runny, stuffy nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, sore throat, cough and smell changes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this is the complete list of the possible symptoms of COVID:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea.

Remember, you might have a combination of these symptoms or just one. They might be mild or feel more severe. But if you’re experiencing any of these, take a COVID test (more on this below).

Several small boxes are stacked next to each other on a counter, each one has the same design and label, which read, "COVID-19 Antigen Home Test."
Rapid COVID-19 test kits await distribution at Union Station in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2022. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

How soon after exposure can I get COVID?

If you’ve heard that incubation times for the virus are getting shorter — that is, the amount of time between getting exposed to COVID and testing positive for COVID — it’s true. People are testing positive for COVID more quickly than they were in 2020, when the average incubation period was five days.

That’s because “the incubation period is definitely changing with the variants,” Chin-Hong said. With every new variant, the incubation period keeps going down a little.

More Guides from KQED

Given this trend, even with a lack of studies on the newer variant, it “makes sense that if someone has symptoms as quickly as two days after exposure, they should test rather than waiting the full five days,” Chin-Hong said. “But if [you test] negative at two to three days, rinse and repeat.”

In other words, if you gathered on Thanksgiving last week and started feeling a little sick back on Sunday — three days after the event itself — don’t wait to test. Test now.

How to find a COVID test (with or without insurance)

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Finding a quick, free COVID test — whether an at-home antigen test or a PCR test — has gotten progressively harder at this stage of the pandemic, as more sites and services have been shuttered for good. However, the federal government has restarted its free at-home COVID-test-ordering service through USPS, meaning you can once again order another four free antigen tests to be delivered to your door.

If you don’t already have a supply of antigen tests for COVID at home, these are your options:

Purchase a COVID at-home antigen test at a pharmacy near you

The quickest option will also be one of the most expensive up-front: Purchasing an at-home antigen test at a nearby pharmacy. (Ideally, ask someone to purchase one for you, so you don’t potentially expose other people at the pharmacy.) These at-home test kits are usually around $20 for a pack of two antigen tests.

If you have health insurance, you will be able to request reimbursement from your health insurer for the cost of up to eight at-home tests per month, so don’t throw away your receipts.

Find a COVID PCR testing site near you

PCR testing is more accurate than an antigen test — because it’s more sensitive at picking up traces of the coronavirus in your body — but it may take longer to get your results than with an at-home test.

Currently, there are still some sites offering free COVID testing around the state. Try using:

If you have health insurance, contact your provider 

If you are insured with major Bay Area providers such as Kaiser Permanente or Sutter Health, the easiest option to secure a COVID test may be to make an appointment through your particular provider. Most providers offer sign-ups online through a member’s login and appointments can also be made by phone.

For more ideas on how to find a free or low-cost COVID test near you, see the KQED guide which includes finding a test through your Bay Area county’s public health department, or at a private testing site.

You can also read our guide to using at-home antigen tests in 2023 and how effective they are.


Tested positive for COVID? Consider asking for a Paxlovid prescription

Paxlovid (pronounced “pax-LOH-vid” or sometimes “PAX-loh-vid”) is a highly effective antiviral treatment for COVID, available free by prescription in California.

The treatment is fairly simple and entails taking a pill orally twice a day, for five days. There’s evidence that it could help lower your risks of developing Long COVID, and as well as helping to reduce your risks of severe illness or hospitalization, it can also help ease symptoms during an infection.

Because of good supply, the drug is no longer reserved for people most at risk of severe illness from COVID, and everyone is encouraged to contact a health care provider to see whether they qualify.

As of February 2023, you no longer need proof of a positive COVID test to get a prescription for Paxlovid, the powerful antiviral COVID treatment. But for it to be effective, health officials recommend starting a course of Paxlovid within five days of a positive test. This means, taking a test as soon as you suspect you have COVID is still very important.

If you’re seeking a prescription, be aware that as of November there have been some changes to how Paxlovid is funded, meaning people with health insurance should make sure they’re requesting Paxlovid “in-network” to avoid an unexpected bill. 

Read more on how to request a prescription for Paxlovid, with or without health insurance.

Negative for COVID? Keep testing and stay home

If your first initial COVID test is negative, remember that because incubation periods can vary, it can take a little while longer to get a positive COVID test — even if you have symptoms already. Follow Dr. Chin-Hong’s advice above to “rinse and repeat,” to be sure.

What if you’re still feeling sick and it’s not COVID? Whether you’re suffering from a bad cold instead, it’s still a very good idea to stay home as much as you possibly can, to avoid infecting other people.

And when you’re feeling better, consider getting your new COVID vaccine as soon as possible, since it’s formulated to target the prevalent strains of COVID that will likely persist through the winter.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, helpful explainers and guides about issues like COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Let us know and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site and on KQED Public Radio, too.

An earlier version of this story was published on Oct. 31.


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