A CityMD waiting room on April 28.
(Credit: Rusty Zimmerman)

Shortly after noon yesterday, Rusty Zimmerman, a 40-year-old artist living in Crown Heights, went to a CityMD on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. After he arrived, fellow patients started spilling into the waiting room and social distancing became less and less possible, he said. A CityMD staff member told him that the care center was short-handed. He waited for almost two hours before receiving a blood draw.

With COVID-19 antibody testing becoming widely available in recent days, eager New Yorkers are lining up outside of urgent care centers to find out if they’ve been exposed to the virus that has claimed the lives of 17,638 people statewide. In some cases, the scenes at walk-in clinics look not unlike the ones we used to see at the host stands of hot new restaurants, with some clinics even instituting daunting reservation systems.

CityMD’s New York and New Jersey locations began offering antibody blood tests April 28, according to an email sent Monday. Patients who haven’t had symptoms at any point, or who have been asymptomatic for 2-4 weeks, can take the test to determine whether they’ve had the virus in the past.

Since Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on April 19 that New York State would start conducting statewide antibody testings, 7,500 people have been tested by the state. Recent phase-two testing results estimated that 14.9% of the state population has COVID-19 antibodies. The data also suggests that New York City has a higher rate of infection, with 24.7% of city residents showing antibodies.  

Compared to the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, the latest test results could be a more accurate indicator of the citywide rate of infection. Like other state leaders, Gov. Cuomo has been hoping to use the results of large-scale antibody testing as a guidance to decide when and how to reopen the economy. The state is currently on lockdown until at least May 15.

As the state conducts its own antibody testing surveys and opens the tests to health care, transit, and law enforcement workers, primary care offices and urgent care centers have gradually made antibody testing available to ordinary New Yorkers. But, much like the Covid-19 positive/negative tests that many have had trouble securing, antibody testing hasn’t been quick and convenient for everyone.

Yesterday afternoon at 3pm, Marc Torrence waited an hour at the CityMD in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at first in a line outside, then in a waiting room with six other people. 

Today around noon, the Upper West Side location of Cure Urgent Care had a 1-hour wait. When Bedford + Bowery called, the line was building up and the phone receptionist advised people to come as soon as possible. (One afternoon last week, the wait was said to be around 2 hours.)

AFC Urgent Care in West Islip, Long Island, has an online appointment system for antibody testing. Every day at midnight, time slots between 8am to 4pm open up for scheduling. This morning, they were all booked up within 5 minutes. 

However, not every urgent care center is facing the same issues. Yosef Hershkop, regional manager of Kamin Health, a family-owned urgent care center that has four locations in Brooklyn and Queens, said that since they started offering antibody tests last Tuesday, an average of 25 people have come in per day. He tries to follow distancing rules and get patients in and out of the center within 7 to 15 minutes. Additionally, Kamin Health offers free medical services to anyone in need, as long as they send Hershkop an email request in advance.

On Sunday night, a patient at Excel Urgent Care in Howard Beach was able to use the clinic’s website to book an appointment for 8:10am the next morning and was tested within minutes of arrival.

It remains to be seen how accurate the antibody test is. Many locations offer a blood draw from the arm, because, as Hershkop explained, it is more accurate than a finger prick due to the latter’s “unreliability and the distrust for them in the medical community.” However, no test is 100% accurate. Research suggests that some antibody tests had high rates of false positives, which makes people believe that they are immune to the virus when, in fact, they’re vulnerable.

The World Health Organization has warned that positive antibody test results do not guarantee immunity. Testing centers also tell patients that they should not use the results as an excuse to break social distancing guidelines. 

Today, Gov. Cuomo announced that a testing survey of first responders showed that 17.1 percent of FDNY officers and EMTs have COVID-19 antibodies and 10.5 percent of NYPD officers have COVID-19 antibodies.

Acknowledging that he was not completely in the clear, Zimmerman said a positive result would make him feel more comfortable putting himself “in a service position” and allow him to be transparent about his conditions with other people. 

Previously a private chef, Zimmerman wanted to volunteer at kitchens to serve people in need. Although he has to wait five to seven days for his test results, he has already started helping by buying bananas and pre-cut pineapples for the staff at CityMD. 

“I’m just trying to do what we can with our respective superpowers to help out.”