Are COVID-19 tests available to everyone?

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Any New York resident now can be tested for COVID-19 and all should do so, advises Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

“What I’m saying to all New Yorkers today is go get a test,” admonished Cuomo in a July 1 briefing at which he announced the state’s new universal testing policy. 

How then, to explain Steve Magro’s experience?

A long retired former Eastman Kodak Co. carpenter, Magro, 90, arranged to be tested at a Unity Hospital drive-through site in early July after being prompted to so by his insurance company. But after a brief interview during which, Magro says, he told a nurse that he had a cough and generally did not feel that well, he was turned away. 

Another staffer gave Magro a number to call to see about a test at another location. No one answered and so he gave up. Though he is in regular contact with a grandson in his 20s who shows no symptoms but who, he fears, might have been exposed, Magro has still not been tested. 

While potentially available to all and even recommended for everyone, COVID testing, it turns out, is not necessarily available to anyone on demand.

A Google search for COVID testing in Monroe County turns up a number of sites including urgent care centers, pharmacies, hospitals and a state-run site at Monroe Community College. The MCC site is free; others may charge or bill patients insurance. Some require appointments; some do not. Some require a doctor’s referral; others do not. All cite disclaimers noting either that tests are limited to certain patients or that unspecified restrictions apply. 

What are the criteria?

Monroe County lists all available test sites on its website to let residents know where they can get tested, says County Health Commissioner Michael Mendoza M.D., but “what happens when you get there really is at the discretion of the clinician who sees you.” 

While anybody can get a test, he adds, “we in health care are still wanting to prioritize tests. We want to (test) people who are symptomatic, people who are high-risk.”

The list of high-risk candidates includes older adults, individuals with chronic medical concerns, any children who have systems or who may be at risk for the multisystem inflammatory syndrome, people who are getting surgery or being admitted to a hospital, and anyone who has been in close contact with someone who is a known positive. 

“Tests aren’t perfect,” Mendoza cautions. 

Negative results do not necessarily mean you are virus-free.

 “The challenge with the tests available today is that there is a significant false negative rate,” Mendoza says.

The most accurate method, which involves a swab resembling a very long Q-tip inserted in a testee’s nose, yields a 38 percent false negative rate for individuals who are in the first day of showing symptoms. Other methods may return more false negatives. Tests are most reliable eight days after an individual has become infected but still might yield false results. So, Mendoza advises all to social distance, wear masks and take other recommended precautions even if they have tested negative.   

“Please do not be falsely reassured when you have a negative test result,” Mendoza implores.

However, he adds, positive results also can be misread. Some might test positive but be clear of symptoms and thus be unlikely to be infectious despite the test result.

“If you have a positive result and you are symptomatic, it’s highly likely that you are currently ill, currently contagious and at greater risk for spreading the infection,” he says, “but because so many people have an asymptomatic course, and because the test can remain positive for six to eight weeks, you can get a positive result long after you’ve cleared the illness from your body.” 

Cuomo advises all to get tested. Mendoza’s bottom line?

“Get tested if it’s going to change what you do,” he says. “If you have symptoms, we definitely want you to get tested. If you work in a profession where you are at risk of exposing other people, we certainly want you to get tested. 

“But for anybody outside of those circumstances, I think it’s fine to get tested,” he adds. “It’s never a bad idea. My only caution is that people understand the meaning of the result. A negative test is not reliable enough for anyone to stop taking the precautions we all need to keep the entire public safe. The moment we start putting our guard down, that’s when we put ourselves at risk for sliding backwards.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

One thought on “Are COVID-19 tests available to everyone?

  1. I think testing in Monroe County is pretty easy to get.

    I just got tested an hour ago. I had had some low risk exposure to maskless people, followed a week later by minor symptoms that I would not have even paid attention to under normal circumstances. So,on the principal that better safe than sorry and I hate feeling that I should opt out of our weekly outdoor cocktail party (on National Tequila Day no less), I decided to get tested.

    Here was the process:
    -On Monday I went to this site (https://covid19screening.health.ny.gov/) and filled out the easy questionnaire (who are you, are you a first responder, have you had exposure to a known case, do you have symptoms).
    – Tuesday am a nice lady from the state called me and gave me the earliest possible appointment, which was for a half hour block anytime I wanted after 8 am on Thursday.
    – At my chosen time I went to MCC (the testing site is in the parking lot in the back). Took 15-20 mins to get through, most of which was waiting. It was startling how many people in camo were involved in the confirming who I was, putting me in the right line etc. but everyone was nice and masked and it was very efficiently organized. Test itself was similar in discomfort to smelling ammonia, and though it felt long, it was actually quite quick. I should get results via text or email in a few days, and my understanding is that this is free.
    My big take aways are that Yeah NYS is doing this right and Yeah this is expensive to do it right. I think that there were about 30 staffers there for 2 lanes of testing and they all looked busy all the time.

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