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COVID-19 tests are in high demand in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year's Eve, with many pharmacies sold out of the at-home tests and testing appointments hard to come by. 

State health officials are encouraging Minnesotans to take a COVID-19 test (and get vaccinated and boosted) before gathering with friends and family, even if you don't have COVID symptoms. 

But with various testing options, it can be confusing to figure out what type of test you should use and when you should take it. We'll break this down for you. 

Types of tests, accuracy

There are two types of tests: the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and rapid antigen tests.

The PCR is the "gold standard" for COVID-19 testing as they're more accurate than antigen tests, the Mayo Clinic says. PCR tests are molecular tests that detect the virus's genetic material and are the recommended testing option for those who do not have symptoms, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says

Meanwhile, antigen tests involve a nasal swab and are used to detect an active COVID infection. Because the test looks for specific proteins on the surface of the virus, they can produce results more quickly than the PCR test. However, there is an increased chance of false-negative results and could provide a false sense of security that you don't have COVID-19, Mayo and MDH say.

PCR tests

PCR tests are available as a nasal swab or saliva test depending on where you go. The state's community testing sites offer PCR saliva tests, while many pharmacies and health care providers offer either option. You can see a list of COVID-19 testing locations in Minnesota here

You can usually expect to get your PCR test results within 24-72 hours, Mayo says.

There are also at-home PCR tests. These involve either spitting into a tube or doing a nasal swab at your house with a kit you either order for free from the state (you can order one here) or buy from a pharmacy or elsewhere. 

After the test, you mail the sample to a lab. Because of this, it can take between three and seven days to get your results, Mayo says. 

Because PCR tests can take a few days to get the result, people should plan ahead so they can get their test result back before gathering with friends and family. 

Antigen tests

Then there are rapid antigen tests, which deliver results within minutes or hours. 

The state offers free rapid antigen tests at state testing sites with results available within about 1-3 hours. You can find a testing location here — you can make an appointment or walk in to get tested, MDH said. 

Then there are at-home rapid antigen tests that are sold at local pharmacies. These tests, such as Abbot's BinaxNOW, provide results in 15 minutes. Prices of these tests vary, but Walgreen's is selling boxes of two BinaxNOW tests for about $25. 

When you're deciding when to take your rapid antigen test, Mayo says "timing is key." You should take the test on the day of the event because it will give you the "best information of whether you have high amounts of the virus in your system at that time."

While antigen tests are not as accurate as they may provide a false negative, especially for those who don't have symptoms, it's better than not testing at all if you're planning to get together with loved ones. 

Mayo does say that if you test negative with one of these at-home tests, you should continue to wear a mask in public settings and around those who aren't vaccinated or who are high risk. And if you test positive, you should confirm the positive test with a lab-based PCR test that day or the following day "to ensure the case is tracked by public health officials and to connect you with a health care provider who will determine if treatment is necessary."

It's worth noting that at-home tests have been hard to come by, with many pharmacies selling out of them or putting limits on how many testing kits people can buy at once. And despite the state expanding hours at some of its community testing sites, there are few appointments available this week (as of this writing, there are appointments available starting on Dec. 27). 

That being said, some have reported no issues with walking in to get a test at the state's testing sites:

Public health officials continue to encourage Minnesotans, regardless of vaccination status, to practice safety measures including masking, social distancing and testing.

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