As more New Yorkers got vaccinated against COVID-19 this spring and summer, interest in getting tested for the virus declined, bottoming out in early July. But demand has resurfaced in recent weeks, likely driven by offices reopening, kids going back to school, a rise in cases due to the highly contagious delta variant and general concerns about another surge. Many workplaces are requiring those who are not vaccinated to get tested for the coronavirus weekly, per a new federal mandate.
For those who haven’t gotten tested in a while, the landscape has shifted. New mobile test sites are scattered around the city, and at-home tests are becoming more widely available. You could run errands after snagging a spot on CityMD’s new “virtual line,” or skip it altogether and duck into the testing van down the block. Whatever you choose, be very skeptical of any site that makes you pay out-of-pocket—with a few exceptions, most COVID tests should still be free.
We’ve consulted with experts—and regular New Yorkers—and compiled resources on when to get tested, what type of test to get, and where to go.
When should I get tested?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 get tested immediately, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated. The same goes for anyone who comes into close contact with someone who was infected or is returning from an international trip. In those two scenarios, the CDC calls for a test within three to five days. Unvaccinated people should also get tested after attending a large gathering or taking part in another high-risk activity, according to the CDC.
Some infectious disease experts recommend testing in circumstances beyond those outlined by the federal government. For instance, staff and residents or students of congregate settings such as nursing homes, colleges, schools, and prisons should get tested frequently, said Dr. Albert Ko, chair of the department of epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale School of Public Health.
Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY School of Public Health, went a step further, saying he would like to see routine rapid testing before dining indoors or attending an indoor event—on top of New York City’s vaccine mandate for such activities.
“[The mayor’s vaccine mandate] may be fine for people who don’t worry about bringing COVID home to a vulnerable family member or a child who’s unvaccinated, but it’s not enough for the whole city to reduce the spread,” Nash said.
What kind of test should I get? How long will the results take?
Rapid antigen tests can be appealing when there’s a time crunch. They typically yield results in under 30 minutes, while the turnaround time can vary for the PCR tests typically used as the standard in hospitals. According to city data, about 70% of PCR test results come back within one day and about 90% come back within two days. CityMD’s website, last updated in early August, indicates a three-to-five day turnaround time.
The tradeoff is that rapid tests are considered 30% to 40% less accurate because they’re more likely to produce a false negative. However, they become far more accurate when someone is showing symptoms of the disease. That means they can help identify those who are most contagious more quickly.
“The rapid tests that have been authorized thus far in the United States are very accurate to answer the question, am I infectious? This is a very different question than: ‘Have I been infected in the last few weeks?’ Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a leading voice on testing, told The Brian Lehrer Show on September 1st. “Why we quarantine people is we are worried about whether or not they are spreading the virus today. These rapid tests do exactly that: They detect infectiousness.”
At many testing sites, it’s possible to get both a rapid and molecular test at the same time. The CDC notes that, in many cases, it makes sense to confirm the results of a rapid test with a more sensitive diagnostic test.
What’s the deal with at-home tests?
Pharmacies, including Walgreens and CVS, are selling over-the-counter coronavirus tests if you’re willing to pay upfront. Make sure to look for at-home tests that have been granted emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Search for “over the counter” in the FDA tables listed here or here.
At CVS, you can buy a pack of two rapid antigen tests with either the QuickVue or BinaxNOW brand names for $23.99, or the Ellume for $38.99. Walmart is selling a two-pack of the Intelliswab rapid tests for just $14.00, although a recent visit to the website found it out-of-stock.
These examples differ from “direct-to-consumer” brands, which tend to cost more. Consumers can shell out a whopping $124.99 for LabCorp’s Pixel, a PCR test kit in which you collect the sample yourself and then send it to the lab for results.
At-home tests won’t help if you need to show proof of your results to attend an event or a public space. Only official test results are accepted in those situations. But some parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated say they have taken to keeping a supply of rapid tests around the house in case someone develops a cough or other potential coronavirus symptoms.
Is COVID testing still free?
Plenty of places in New York City still offer a free coronavirus test, and any out-of-pocket costs at in-person sites should set off alarm bells. Under the federal CARES Act, coronavirus tests ordered by a health care provider are supposed to be free to the patient, though your insurance provider may still get billed.
But if you’re buying an at-home test, it’s worth checking if your insurance will reimburse you. Aetna, for instance, says it will cover the cost of home coronavirus tests that are used to determine the need for medical treatment.
Providers might also conduct a pre-screening questionnaire to justify a no-cost test where they might seek a valid reason. For example, they might ask if you have symptoms; have been exposed to a person who was infected; have been somewhere where social distancing was not possible or have an upcoming trip.
This pre-screen is usually routine, but a few providers seem to be looking for ways to charge patients out-of-pocket. In particular, watch out for CareCube, a primary care provider with locations in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan that emphasizes the need to ensure coronavirus tests are medically necessary and has a habit of billing patients separately for the “office visits” it says are required to do so.
Some companies are also finding ways to charge for additional services. For instance, the urgent care chain MedRite indicates that some locations can provide PCR test results within three hours for a $225 fee.
Where can I get tested and what should I know before I go?
Here’s the low-down on a few of the options:
Urgent Care: It may make sense to check your preferred urgent care’s website or call before seeking a test, as some have changed their testing procedures.
To avoid the long lines witnessed during the first surge, the ever-ubiquitous CityMD chain has created a new system, which might be confusing for the uninitiated. If you’re seeking a COVID test, you now have to show up in person and submit your contact information to reserve a place in the “virtual line.” You will then be given an estimated wait time and can leave until you get an update via text message letting you know when to come back.
It’s always safer to go early. One reader told WNYC/Gothamist he went to the NoHo CityMD around 3:40 p.m. on Wednesday, September 8th, and was told testing slots had run out for the day.
The same reader says he tried a nearby MedRite a little earlier that afternoon and was told the same thing. MedRite allows patients to pre-register online, which saves time at check-in, but testing is still first-come, first-served. The clinic does provide a helpful estimate online for the current wait time at each location.
City-Run Clinics With Appointments: COVID Express locations have opened throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn and allow a user to book an online appointment for a PCR test and get the results within a few hours. This is a pretty ideal testing experience—if you can snag a convenient slot. If no appointments are showing up, try checking back after midnight when new appointment times tend to pop up.
City-Run Walk-in Sites and Mobile Vans: NYC Health + Hospitals has set up a network of mobile testing vans to complement its permanent walk-in sites. Find the locations and hours here, as well as a note on whether each place also offers rapid antigen tests. Children older than 2 can be tested at any of these locations and the list also indicates options for younger infants. None of these locations takes appointments, but some clinics pre-register visitors to streamline the check-in process.
Some users say they find the mobile testing vans to be the easiest option. It’s possible to luck out and find one completely unoccupied, but wait times can vary. At the mobile van at Marcy and Fulton in Bed Stuy, the line took about 20 minutes at lunchtime on Wednesday, September 8th. Two days later at noon, it was an hour-and-a-half.
Some private operators are also running mobile testing sites. The company CTS Mobile Testing has a 15-van fleet, which according to its Instagram, are stationed in every borough except Staten Island. The Times Square van has extended hours and is open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. The company takes your insurance information, but says there is no out-of-pocket cost. Attendees can get PCR and rapid tests at the same time, with results delivered via text and email.
CVS Minute Clinics: Minute Clinics are typically walk-in affairs, but for coronavirus tests, the national pharmacy chain is taking appointments as well. Availability can be spotty. To schedule an appointment, you have to answer some quick screening questions and then select a date and time. The website indicates which test is available at which site.