A Covid-19 testing site in Albany. (Air National Guard Photo by Technical Sergeant Jamie Spaulding)

Call New York’s COVID-19 hotline, suggested by the state Department of Health’s website as the way to get tested, and you might be told that people with mild symptoms should monitor their condition at home and, if it worsens, contact a healthcare provider for further suggestions. 

According to the health department’s testing page, drive-through testing prioritizes “symptomatic individuals that are part of the highest risk population, those who have been in close contact with a positive case, and, as necessary, health care workers, nursing home employees and first responders on the front lines.” Testing is by appointment only.

If you think you might have COVID-19, it might seem like you have to undergo a series of evaluations before getting that elusive nasal swab. Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged, earlier today, that just one company was supplying a dependable number of tests to New York City, and it was “not a huge amount.” But, contrary to what you might believe, the state and city systems aren’t your only options, and getting tested might be easier than you think.

A month ago, when Jason Giamboi had flu-like symptoms, body aches and a headache, he walked into a CityMD urgent care clinic in Manhattan. “I didn’t have a tough time having the test,” he said. “I just walked in, said that I felt like I had the flu, and the doctor was nice enough to just do the test.”

Similarly, Stephanie Ogeka developed flu-like symptoms and difficulty breathing a month ago. Instead of calling the hotline, she went to the Long Island Urgent Care in Manorville. She scanned a QR code outside of the care center and filled out a Google form with her symptoms. Shortly after, while she waited in her car, a nurse called her for more information. She got tested at a drive-through site and returned home within an hour.

These anecdotes of successful testing are in stark contrast to recent news stories. In an April 11 memo, the New York City Department of Health pointed to “a real possibility hospitals will completely run out” of the swabs used to collect upper respiratory specimens for testing, and instructed healthcare providers to “only test hospitalized patients.” In a March 31 explainer about how to get tested, City & State wrote that “most patients in New York City will not be given a COVID-19 test unless they’ve been hospitalized – even then being tested for the virus isn’t a guarantee. Several people have already shared their accounts of being deprived of a test, despite displaying symptoms of the virus, presumably because the state must ration tests, which remain in relatively short supply.” 

Danielle Pouletsos lives in Long Island and has lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that makes one’s immune system dysfunctional, along with a series of other health complications. She described the wildly different experiences she and her husband had when they sought testing via the state hotline and via a walk-in clinic, respectively. Her husband, who works at the Suffolk County Police Department, went to a CityMD after numerous failed attempts to schedule a test via the state hotline. He got his positive test results back within 24 hours. 

COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in Glenn Island Park, New Rochelle. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Amouris Coss)

Having had a fever for a week, Danielle called the state hotline every day starting March 16, she said. Each time, there was a long wait time before someone took down her information. Two days later, she received a call back from the Department of Health and was told to go to a drive-through testing site in Stony Brook the next day. They told her to wait 48 hours for the test results. When twice that amount of time passed without any word, she contacted the state and the county with no luck. Finally, on March 24, she tried the patient portal at BioReference, the lab that was supposed to run her test, and found out that her sample was damaged. The test had never been run. As of today, the state had not gotten back to Danielle about her results.

“The hotline was just a mess. I understand that they probably tried their best to put everything together, but I still fell through every crack,” Danielle said. “It was an epic nightmare.”

To get a bigger picture, Bedford + Bowery reached out to various urgent care centers– including CityMD, ProHealth, and AFC– in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, and received varying answers about who is eligible for coronavirus testing. In order to replicate the experience of a potential patient, we did not identify as a reporter.

Some centers offered responses similar to the hotline’s, explaining that potential patients should be evaluated by a health care provider or a medical professional, who would determine whether they would be approved for testing. The exact criteria was not made clear. But people with mild symptoms such as a cold and dry coughing should stay home and isolate themselves, said a receptionist at one CityMD location. “We only have limited tests, so we’re prioritizing high-risk patients.”

A message on CityMD’s website, dated March 13, discourages those with mild cold or flu symptoms from seeking testing, since “widespread testing is unavailable and may even be counterproductive, because the demand for testing will overwhelm our ability to care for the sickest, most vulnerable patients.” But the message also states that “for those patients who are experiencing fever, shortness of breath, persistent cough and body aches, we are here to examine and evaluate you. If we are able to rule out seasonal flu, we may recommend a coronavirus test.” 

Other walk-in clinics were quick to schedule a test without asking any questions. When called, the ProHealth urgent care center at Gramercy Park said they could schedule a test the next day, even when the patient had only mild symptoms or was asymptomatic. “Everyone is getting tested, you don’t need to get evaluated.”

According to its website, ProHealth is currently offering COVID-19 testing at all of its urgent care locations, and is scheduling drive-through testing as well. The website directs those with symptoms to call a hotline at 1-516-874-0411. ”If your symptoms suggest you need a test, you’ll be scheduled for drive-thru testing and an appointment at one of our urgent care locations,” the message says. 

Guidelines on the CDC’s website, updated March 24, instruct doctors to conduct COVID-19 testing based on three tiers of priority, starting with hospitalized patients and symptomatic healthcare workers. The second level of priority includes those with symptoms who are 65 or older, live in long-term care facilities, have underlying conditions, or are first responders. The third level of priority, to be tested “as resources allow,” includes asymptomatic health care workers and first responders, and all other people with symptoms, in particular those who work with critical infrastructure and live in communities experiencing a high rate of hospitalization. Those without symptoms are described as a non-priority. 

As of April 22, New York City has had 35,920 COVID-related hospitalizations, 9,944 deaths that lab tests confirmed were COVID-related, and 5,052 deaths in which COVID-19 or an equivalent illness was listed as the cause of death though it was not confirmed by testing. To determine an accurate number of people who have been infected by the coronavirus statewide, Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that he will launch an aggressive antibody testing campaign. The state Department of Health plans to randomly select 3,000 people at 20 grocery stores around the state, with at least one in each borough. In upstate New York, some Wegmans stores have been chosen as testing sites. Participants provide a finger-stick blood sample to be tested for antibodies. 

Tuesday, Governor Cuomo and President Donald Trump met in the White House and agreed that the federal government will help double coronavirus testing in New York to 40,000 tests a day by mid-May. The tests include both diagnostic and antibody tests. 

This morning, while admitting that “we don’t have the testing that we need today,” Mayor de Blasio announced a “test and trace” program that will eventually involve testing “hundreds of thousands” of New Yorkers. The mayor also announced six new testing sites, including locations in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, that will prioritize public housing residents. The Lower East Side location, at Gouverneur Health Center, will open Friday, while the Williamsburg location, at Jonathan Williams Houses, will open next week.