Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the tests: Suddenly, in many places, it’s hard (or costly) to get tested — and the results are slow in coming

Filed Under: Costs, Patients

(Updated, Sept. 18) Coronavirus (Covid-19) testing has increasingly become more expensive and slower — or at least less dependably fast — with the surge in infections nationwide.

Here are some recent findings from our reporting. We have been following the coronavirus (Covid-19) testing situation since May 2020. Here’s an update as of today, April 25, 2021.

Some New York City locations, for example from our partner at Epicenter-NYC in Queens, have mobile trailers with a short wait and fast results. New York City Health + Hospitals, the public chain, has been in the forefront, and they seem to be doing well — see details here. Locations of CityMD, the private storefront walk-in chain, according to an informal sampling, have longer lines.

Online, in-home tests

Wanting to buy online? The Abbott BinaxNow test is a popular one: $23.99 for two, previously available easily at Amazon, Walgreens and the like.

On Aug. 24, it was out of stock at Amazon and Walgreens. On Aug. 25, it was suddenly back in stock at Amazon, but for delivery in two weeks. This time the price was $19.88.

But at CVS, on Aug. 24, I ordered 5 kits for delivery promised Aug. 27-31.

Nothing on eBay, though I imagine that will change — and soon! With an item in such high demand.

The New York Times reported this week that some of the tests from the Abbott BinaxNow factory in Maine had been destroyed. Abbott rejected the claims.

San Diego, New York, Philadelphia

We did a partnership with San Diego’s INewSource in May, reflecting that the price of a test could be $0 or $400. The details are here. In the time since we did that project, the demand for testing has grown with the surge in Covid cases.

Our partner S. Mitra Kalita, founder of Epicenter-NYC in Queens, New York, the epicenter of the epicenter of the epidemic in 2020, said she got a test in Queens on Aug. 18 at a mobile van in Corona, where the wait was less than 5 minutes and the rapid results came in 6 minutes and the PCR in under 18 hours.

A woman in Philadelphia told ClearHealthCosts that she went to her local Walgreens for a test on Sunday, but as of Wednesday still does not have the results. “I went to Walgreens because it was the only site with an opening that day. But they didn’t send it out until Monday,” she said. “It wasn’t processed until [Tuesday] night. No results yet.”

The woman said that if she had known the Walgreens would take this long she would have gone elsewhere for her test.

We called the Walgreens she went to, at 300 N. 63rd St. in Philadelphia. A recording said, “Due to the high demand for tests, your results may be delayed.”

When we reached the pharmacy, the rep who answered said that the turnaround time is “two to three days.” Our source has only been waiting three days (since Sunday) so she could still get it back in time. When wwe asked for a comment on a source/customer who has been waiting since Sunday, she said, “We do the test here and then we send it to the lab, we don’t test it ourselves.”

When we asked for her first name, she hung up.

Our source also said: “I’m lucky. I can work from home. Our house is big enough for me to avoid others [i.e. the people she lives with].” Meaning that it’s not a huge consequence for her to have to wait so long to be cleared, whereas it might have a bigger impact on less ‘lucky’ folks.”

Her results finally posted at 4:30 in the morning, outside of the three-day period, but not by too much. She tested negative.

Waiting at the border

A New York woman who is a Canadian citizen driving back to Canada on Wednesday, Aug. 25, took a test with expectation of results in 36 hours for the express purpose of crossing the border. Her husband said at 7 p.m. that the results were not in, and they did not know if they would be allowed into Canada.

The deadline was 9 p.m. Monday for the 36-hour results, which is why they left their home to drive to the border, expecting results to land as they were in transit. At 9:30, they were still at the border and still waiting.

The results finally arrived at 10:30, she said.

A friend in the Pacific Northwest has a relative who waited for days for results. In Florida, with the surge in Delta, tests are taking a very long time.

In New York City, in densely populated Manhattan, waits can be long.

One Manhattan woman was tested at a CityMD on Aug. 1, and is still waiting for results today, Aug. 25. She wrote: “It was early August, I had some symptoms on a Saturday afternoon, slept awhile, woke up with a fever over 100 and still fatigued and by then it was 6:30 or so in the evening. I looked online for urgent care places……the one I’d been to in the past, on Broadway around 103rd, was closed, Then we got in the car and drove to 2-3 other urgent care places in Harlem. All closed at 5, or even earlier, on a Saturday, and that seems to be pretty standard practice — one of them even said that in summer they were closing at 4 on Saturdays. By that point I just wanted to go back to bed, so decided to wait til the next day. Late morning on Sunday I went to the City MD on Broadway around 103rd, waited an hour or so, then was taken in for the test, which took a few seconds. One person at City MD told me results would take 2-3 days, but the doctor (I think she was a doctor) who came in to actually do the test said it could be 3-5 days.”

We asked CityMD what is the typical turnaround and offered a chance for a comment. Joy Lee-Calio,
Director, PR, Communications, at Summit Health, the parent organization, wrote in an email: “This reported turnaround time is highly irregular and we’d like to look into this delay to understand what has happened. Please ask the individual to contact me so that our Aftercare team can look into the matter promptly.”

During our exchange of emails with the Summit media relations department, the Manhattan woman phoned the CityMD branch where she was tested, to ask if they had her results. She was put on hold and hung up after about 10 minutes without learning anything. She also left a voice message for Summit PR director Joy Lee-Calio, which apparently prompted a return call Wednesday evening from someone in Summit’s “aftercare department.” That caller told her after we had inquired about the problem, that the results should be in the CityMD portal, and once the results were posted, she should have received an email or text notific ation telling her to look for them there..

She saw no such notification, either in regular email or in spam. She is Web-savvy, but the CityMD Aftercare department did email her her results directly after she queried them. Her test was negative.

We asked Lee-Callo again:
1. What is the turnaround time for Covid tests of any kind?
2. What might be the reason for a 24-day delay in getting results?
3. Overall, has there been an increase in requests for Covid tests with the rise of the Delta variant?
4. Anything else we should know?

She didn’t reply.

The landscape shifts, yet again

In mid-September, Gothamist ran a piece about the testing landscape in New York City by Caroline Lewis, who was the lead reporter when we partnered with Gothamist in 2019-2020 on news coverage.

Comments on her story:

“ALL the sites near me run by H+H closed. I can travel to some in a reasonable distance via subway, but when I tested positive for a COVID on an antigen test, I declined to get a PCR to confirm as the risk to others to travel somewhere on public transit to get tested seemed too great. I’m pretty frustrated as there used to be several within walking distance, and it doesn’t seem like the time to shrink testing availability.”

“I’ve used NYC H+H hospital sites over a dozen times and I’ve waited 10 minutes max and always received the results within 24 hours. I don’t know why anyone would go anywhere else if you’re in NYC. I guess if it’s later in the day and the H+H sites are closed it may be tempting to try CityMD etc but I think the wait time to get the results probably cancels it out vs. going first thing the next morning. Bellevue is open Monday through Saturday at 7:30am. Get there when they open and walk right through. They’re also zero out-of-pocket cost, no questions asked. I do not understand why anyone would pay money for an at-home test. They basically advise you to also then go get a PCR to be sure, so why not just get a PCR instead of wasting the money?”

“With school starting and work mandates, it means there are a lot more people without symptoms being asked to get tested, so this is relevant now. And getting tested even if you’re vaccinated if you’re feeling something while Delta is going around isn’t a crazy idea–so demand is up for all kinds of reasons.”

“Honestly, I needed this article. All my go-to city-run sites for testing disappeared around late June, and now I have to travel a lot farther and go through a lot more headache to get tested.”

“People know they need a test, and everyone may know some of these places, but not all of them. If you’ve been careful throughout the past year, maybe you didn’t get tested at all and so didn’t seek the places out? Pop-up testing disappears, the newer private clinic centers can have different billing schemes, along with supplies day to day being limited–the surge in demand means if you need a test in a timely fashion you’ve got to know more than one option. I got tested on Sunday and a bunch of folks got turned away at the CityMD I was at. I’m sure several of them hadn’t thought out next steps/location/etc.”

“*If you must have a PCR test,* then it almost certainly makes more sense to go to a testing site. You’ll probably get your results back faster (1-2 days, or even same day at an Express site, vs. 1-3 days with an at-home test, depending on if it makes the Fedex deadline), and it saves you $100 or more. *If you just need a rapid antigen test,* then paying $10 to do it at home vs. going to an urgent care or H&H location to do the same test can make a lot of sense. It depends how much you value your time. The test is the same. FYI, the PCR tests can be relatively fast, but I’ve never heard of a case where they’re “as quick” as a rapid antigen test, which takes 15 minutes.”

“While some of these providers are trying to gouge consumers, the much bigger scam is them gouging insurance companies, which basically have to pay for the tests and associated charges, both because the law requires it and, if they push back, they get terrible PR. Lenox Hill was billing insurance over $3k for covid tests, because they were treating it as an ER visit.”

“I’m never sure if the vans are free. Some of them seem shady. I had tried to get the test done at an urgent care and they couldn’t guarantee the turnaround and the cost was $400 but insurance was supposed to cover it they said…. I was much more comfortable going to Bellevue. It was a 15 walk and it was a nice day, so no problems. … Got my results today, I’m clean and good to go! :)”

 

Shop around

The bottom line: It pays to shop around.

Prices and availability change with the surge or drop in Covid cases.

Local reporting can really make a difference: Our INewSource reporting was very immediate and fresh. We notice that some local groups (my local Moms Facebook group, for example) have up-to-date information about costs, locations and the times in getting a result.

From our San Diego reporting, and other sources, it seems often to be true that faster can be more expensive. Also tests for travel (“I’m going to Hawaii! Clear me please, according to Hawaii rules!”) are more expensive and slower than tests for symptomatic or recently exposed people (“I was just exposed without PPE, along with my whole work group.”).

In general; faster tests can be less accurate. A negative result on a fast test can bring a medical professional to recommend a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which takes longer but is more reliable. As we have been reporting from the beginning of the pandemic, the tests are far from 100 percent reliable — either rapid test, or PCR test, or antigen test for current infection. Also far from 100 percent reliable: antibody tests (which gauges the presence of antibodies signifying a previous infection, not a current infection).