Coronavirus testing in New York City has been plagued with problems since the early days of the pandemic.
First, limited supplies meant most New Yorkers couldn’t get tested. Once capacity increased, many people experienced long delays in getting results as national labs couldn’t meet the increased demand while the virus spread across the country.
But with schools in the city set to reopen for some students this month, reliable and quick testing will be key to keeping students, parents and teachers safe.
Now, the city is offering several options for families to get results within 48 hours.
Where you get tested can make a huge difference. Health officials recommend visiting one of the city’s priority testing sites or one of the new rapid testing clinics.
Public schools will also randomly test about 10 to 20 percent of students and teachers every month, starting in October.
Here is what you need to know about getting test results quickly:
How can I get a quick virus test in New York City?
Mayor Bill de Blasio urged parents to visit one of 22 priority testing sites run by the city’s Health and Hospitals system. You can walk in without an appointment.
“It is fast, it is free, it is convenient, and you get your result quickly,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference this week, promising results in 48 hours.
The city is also offering a popular new option, called rapid testing, with results in 24 hours. You have to schedule an appointment online in advance, and they tend to get booked quickly.
There are four of these rapid test clinics in Manhattan — in Chelsea, Central Harlem, the Upper West Side and Washington Heights; two clinics in Brooklyn — in Crown Heights and Fort Greene; two in Queens — in Corona and Jamaica; and one in the Bronx in Morrisania.
The clinics have the capacity to provide only about 500 total tests per day.
“They have been filling up fast,” the city’s new health commissioner, Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, said in an interview. “We’re still in the process of ramping up our capacity.”
There are other places you can get tested: doctor’s offices, CityMD clinics, home-test kits and even concierge services that cater to the wealthy. But many medical providers rely on the same handful of private labs, which has led to painful delays.
How long does it take to get results?
Many New Yorkers say they received test results from the city’s priority testing sites and public hospitals in two days.
Lauren Goldenberg, a library employee who lives in Brooklyn, was tested at Kings County Hospital on Aug. 29. She got her negative result about 40 hours later.
“Efficient, quick, clean,” she said of her experience.
Others have seen longer turnaround times. CityMD, a network of walk-in clinics across the city, says it is currently providing results in three to four days. Quest Diagnostics, a national laboratory, has contributed to some of the worst delays in New York, although a spokeswoman for the city said it is no longer using the company.
More than 75 percent of people tested at the city’s Health and Hospitals sites are getting their test results in three days, according to city officials.
City officials announced on Wednesday that they have opened a new lab in Manhattan to process tests more quickly, rather than relying on big lab companies.
The laboratory will eventually be able to test more than 40,000 samples a day, with turnaround times of about 24 to 48 hours, according to city officials.
But demand for testing is likely to increase as gyms, malls, schools and indoor dining reopen in September, which could challenge the city’s testing infrastructure.
How often should I get tested?
You should get tested if you have symptoms, if you have been exposed to someone who has the virus or if you have traveled somewhere with a high infection rate.
City officials are also encouraging New Yorkers to get tested more regularly — as often as once a month.
“The rule of thumb that I follow myself, and I encourage others to do, is to make sure you’re tested at least once every month,” Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health, said at a news conference last month.
Dr. Varma said in an interview that city officials are still debating what formal guidance to give New Yorkers about how often to get tested.
One potential challenge is testing capacity. The city’s hospital system is currently administering about 5,000 tests per day and has the ability to provide 10,000 tests per day.
But there are more than one million public school children, and at least half are expected to return to classrooms. If an influx of families try to get tested at the same time, there might not be enough tests to meet the demand.
Does the test hurt? Is it safe to visit a testing site?
City testing sites use two types of nasal swabs — a traditional test, known as a nasopharyngeal swab and affectionately called a “brain poke,” and a newer approach, known as an anterior nares sample, that is inserted more shallowly.
“We are pivoting toward the anterior test because it is more comfortable,” said Dr. Andrew Wallach, a top official at the city’s Health and Hospitals agency who is overseeing testing.
City officials said parents should not be worried about being exposed to the virus while waiting in line for a test. Everyone is required to use a face covering, and visitors must stand six feet apart.
“If you’re concerned enough to want a test, the benefits far outweigh the risks,” Dr. Varma said. “It’s safe because of the precautions we’re taking.”
If you plan to use a city testing site, you should sign up for its MyChart system to get your results online. Otherwise, it could take longer to get your results over the phone.
Should I get an antibody test too?
An antibody test can reveal whether you had the virus. But there are concerns about the accuracy of the tests.
Many of the city’s testing sites also offer antibody tests. Even if you test positive for antibodies, you should still continue to wear a mask and socially distance, city officials said.
“It’s a test of exposure — not of immunity,” Dr. Chokshi said. “Regardless of what the result is, it shouldn’t change your behavior as an individual. You still have to take precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”
Antibody testing is important because it helps health officials understand how many people have been exposed to the virus and in what neighborhoods, Dr. Chokshi said.
Health officials also urged families to get the flu shot and to make sure their children receive routine vaccinations to keep other illnesses at bay.