Lower Manhattan Covid Testing, simplified
If you live outside of NYC, you should know there are vast differences in Covid testing sites. Walking distance from my front door in Lower Manhattan are the following testing options:
3 CityMD offices: not all offer rapid tests, though all testing is free. You show up a minimum of one hour before the office opens and wait outside in a long long line until the office opens. A few locations do not fill up their lists until about 10am, but until that time you’re standing in the cold in a reasonably well spaced line.You choose PCR (24–48 hours for results) or Rapid Test (you get results in 15 minutes). (Reminder: antigen test are faster but slightly more false-negatives; PCR tests are slower but more accurate — neither is a blood test.) Once the office opens, you sign up on a list and they text you when your number is up (anytime until they close for the day) to come in for your test. You have 30 minutes from the initial text to show up. When you get inside the staff is courteous and walks you through the sign up. You have a private quick swab and even a few words with the person doing the test. You can ask questions and get answers. The test results are texted and/or emailed to your phone after you leave the office.
CityMD offices now have security guards at their doors to turn away people who want to sign up later in the day or who rudely try to push their way in to “just get a quick test real quick.” About two hour wait outside is fairly common.
11 pharmacies (one Rite Aid, one CVS, six Walgreens/Duane Reades, one Kings Pharmacy, and two unbranded small local places) and private doctors: most do not offer tests at all, or (for the chain pharmacies) you have to sign up online through a national and/or completely irrational system that says they have openings when they don’t, or says they don’t have openings when they do. Frustration level: high.
LOOK FOR SIGNAGE. If the sign does not specifically say “free” covid tests there will be a charge. The tiny local pharmacies may charge exorbitant rates— these have shorter lines but may still have long wait times. For example, rapid antigen tests at Downtown Pharmacy (165 William Street) — managed by a guy who seems to disbelieve in science, judging from how he crammed the people waiting to be vaccinated into the same tight indoor aisle with the symptomatic people waiting to see if they have Covid — ran $30 with insurance, $55 without insurance and $175 for a rapid PCR test (the only place that I’ve seen Rapid PCR tests).
A little old New Yorker in a Yankees cap I befriended (he said “no offense but you’re da kinda gal I’d like to siddown in a bar wid and just talk about anything in da world,” how could I not befriend him?) said that when he got to the front of the line they refused to take his insurance and made him pay the $55. He also informed me that this particular pharmacy made you pay our of pocket because when the NYC government sent out the sign-up to offer to pay for the tests on behalf of all people, the manager refused. (He had a lot of things to say, this chatty New Yorker) In any case, at this pharmacy, there was a two hour chilly wait outside in order to sign up on a clipboard at which point you were allowed to wait inside. That wait was another 30–60 minutes before the test was administered and there was no distancing between the people waiting for Covid Tests (presumably all were there because of either symptoms or exposure!) and also no distancing between the people who wanted boosters or vaccines and the potentially sick clients. When I got to the front of this line, the person administering the tests went running to her supervisor begging him to remind her how to do the rapid PCR test because she had forgotten.
My “rapid PCR test” was identically swabbed as the rapid antigen test…no idea if it was the same thing, a confused pharmacist, or a sneaky manager.
For those who want to throw money at their problems, corporations have opened at least 6 for-profit clinics that are swanky and gorgeous — sign up happens via app only and there are houseplants and presumably no long waits. I tried to sign up for one of these, and the next rapid test appointment available is three weeks out. Sometime mid-January. At last glance (Dec 23) two of these clinics had long lines, but since they’re both in mall-type locations the lines, at least, were indoors. (One of them also had a creepy 60+ White man in scraggly clothes who was angrily coughing in the entry way of the clinic. Unmasked. On purpose.)
Finally there are the pop-up testing sites. These range from amusing to terrifying and I’ve only been to a couple. They have poor or hand-written signage and the best way to identify them as testing sites is by the long lines of masked people waiting nearby. I’ve been to a truck that was briefly parked on Vesey street — they were professional and courteous and the woman signing me in told a dreadful story of anti-Vaxxers in Times Square spitting at her. The test was done inside the truck, privately, and was very quick — though I felt awful for the guy who had to be inside a truck with everyone who ever thought they had Covid.
There is a fantastic clear-plastic tent outside Fulton Center with free rapid-antigen followed by free PCR test — run by a French woman, most of the people in this line are tourists from Europe. Many are French. I do not know who sponsors this testing site but this woman is heroic — working alone when her partner abandons her, she is out there dealign with awful, demanding people who don’t listen to her instructions. Her handwritten signs have evolved to say things like “If you don’t smile we will turn you away.” and “be nice or no test” and “take a photo of your ID with your phone.”
After you hand her your ID (and presumably smile and say hello and assure her you did take a photo of it) she gives you a swab and a tube with some liquid in it. You spit “three times, very small” into the tube and you swab “eight times, both noses”. There’s not a dedicated location to do this, so most people go do it under the awning where the Grub Hub delivery people congregate.
After waiting for the French people to clear away from the front of the booth, you hand your samples back to her. Then you go somewhere and either pretend you have Covid and keep your mask on, or pretend you don’t have Covid and eat a donut, like all of these people inside Fulton Center who are waiting for their test results and trying to warm up after standing in a cold line for two hours or more…
Then you come back to the tent and pretend you are French as you hang around feeling annoyed at how long fifteen minutes is. And then she tells you Negative or Positive depending on how your antigen test turned out. You leave with the caution that the PCR test takes longer and these results will be emailed to you soon.
That’s it. That’s how to test. Of all these I would recommend the clear tent though the wait is very long. Nothing is efficient. None of it feels particularly safe. At-home testing is probably best if you can get your hands on test kits….Downtown Pharmacy had them in stock but refused to sell me (at $45 each!) more than a single kit — even though I have four people living in my place.
My Amazon delivery is scheduled for January 9. So it’s lines until then. Stay safe & be well until then, NYC.
Feel free to list your own discoveries below.