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Understanding Test Results

The Harvard University Clinical Laboratory (HUCL) tests all of the Harvard community members’ Color COVID-19 self-swab kits. HUCL also works with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) to review and refine its methodology for interpreting lab results to align with emergent best practices. Color, the health technology company partnering with Harvard for COVID-19 testing, will send you an email and text notification when your results are available.

Negative Test Results

If you test negative for COVID-19, no further action is needed. Continue to wear a mask, maintain your required testing frequency, and practice good hygiene.

Read more tips about how to keep Harvard healthy.

Positive Test Results

If you receive a notification of a positive test, it’s incredibly important to minimize your movement and exposure to others. HUHS will contact you to discuss what it means to be positive and explain next steps, including a move to isolation and follow-up by a trained, HUHS contact tracer. If you don’t hear from HUHS and have an immediate question, please call them directly. As required by state law, the Massachusetts DPH will also be notified of any positive test result.

After the initial conversation with you, HUHS will contact:

  • School/Unit emergency leads, including College housing (if applicable)
  • Campus Services, including emergency management, environmental health and safety, security, facilities management, and dining services

These two groups, in partnership with HUHS, will work together to mobilize local support. They will take great care to ensure your privacy while supporting your move to isolation and, if you’re living on campus, caring for you during the isolation period.

See the Contact Tracing page and the Quarantine and Isolation page for more information on case investigations and quarantine and isolation protocols.

Unsatisfactory Sample

Occasionally, your result may be unsatisfactory.

If you receive an unsatisfactory result, you will need to take another test as soon as possible. If your repeat test requires clinical observation, HUHS will let you know. If you are in quarantine, it is acceptable to leave your home briefly in order to submit a test sample, but masks and physical distancing are required.

Here are some common ways samples are classified as unsatisfactory:

  • Tube cap popped off – Always make sure your cap is pushed on securely before submitting. Loose caps are the biggest reason samples are discarded.
  • Failed to activate kit – Always make sure you receive a message from Color that your kit was successfully activated. This is what links the sample to an individual. If a kit is not activated, the sample will be discarded.
  • Debris on swab – We recommend blowing your nose before collecting the sample; any solid debris on your swab will prevent the lab from processing your sample.
  • Kit activated, but sat for a long time – Your sample needs to be placed in a collection bin as soon as possible. Samples not deposited in a bin within 24 hours from activation may be discarded by the lab.

Inconclusive Sample

In rare instances, the lab may be unable to interpret results for a test. You should not make any determinations about your current status based on the inconclusive result.

If you receive an inconclusive result or a notification that the lab was unable to return results for your sample, please submit another test as soon as possible. If you are currently in isolation, close contact quarantine, or travel quarantine, you should continue to adhere to relevant guidelines until additional results are received.

Please Respect Individuals’ Privacy

Anonymity for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 remains paramount. Please respect their privacy— even if you believe you know who they are—so they can focus completely on their health. As a community, we must do everything we can to support one another through this incredibly difficult time.