unhappy holidays

Why Does It Take Hours to Get a COVID Test in New York?

Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Dr. Katharine Miao first noticed the queue outside her CityMD urgent care center in Upper Manhattan start to swell three weeks ago, but this past weekend was the most intense period she experienced as a physician.

In the run up to Thanksgiving amid a second wave of the pandemic in the city, the wait to get a COVID-19 test ballooned to as long as six hours at several CityMD sites. After the holiday, New Yorkers were still said to be waiting hours. Miao and her staff have put in 12-hour days to keep up with demand. She’s been so overwhelmed she hasn’t even been able to see how long the lines are outside her clinic, although she noticed on Twitter that some New Yorkers resorted to hiring placeholders to stand outside for them. “We’re the hottest item in town and people are paying up for it,” Miao said. “It just boggles my mind, but people feel whatever their situation is it’s important to them to get tested.”

There are several reasons for the serpentine lines, according to Miao, who said that about 40 percent of patients said they had travel plans, another 40 percent were exposed to someone who tested positive, and 20 percent had coronavirus symptoms. And the clinics have reduced the number of people allowed in its waiting rooms so the potentially contagious aren’t breathing on top of each other indoors.

The long lines so close to Thanksgiving showed that many New Yorkers were using the results of either test to give themselves permission to attend large family feasts, which public health officials warned was inadvisable.

“It can be helpful to know you are positive but there are so many opportunities between when you get tested and interact with people when you get back,” Stephen Kissler, a Harvard Chan School of Public Health postdoctoral researcher in immunology and infectious diseases told Intelligencer. “It’s important for individuals to realize getting a PCR test right now isn’t a ticket for them to interact with people safely.”

Another concern is that New Yorkers who visit other regions facing worse outbreaks than the city could bring the virus back with them. Jackie Bray, the deputy director of the city public hospital system’s Test and Trace Corps, recommended any New Yorkers who left for Thanksgiving get tested for COVID before they come back and again a few days after they return or prepare to quarantine for two weeks in early December. “Even though cases are increasing in New York City we are doing a far better job than anywhere else in the country but if you travel you bring those new infections in,” she told Intelligencer. “We’re fortunate in New York City to have available testing but that’s not true across the country.”

Private clinics aren’t the only ones seeing a surge in testing demand. The city’s public hospital system, which provides both regular PCR and rapid tests, recorded 70,000 tests conducted on a single day in the past week among its 40 testing locations, NYC Health and Hospitals officials said. Two sites, Bellevue Hospital and a pop-up clinic near Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton, reported lines over two hours early this week and some patients had three-hour waits. Bellevue even canceled walk-in appointments Tuesday to alleviate the pressure.

City hospitals are adjusting to the surge in demand. Hospital officials opened 20 new sites in vacant high schools, Bellevue added staff members to register people for lines more quickly and staffers even distributed self-swab kits to people this week who did not want to wait hours to get admitted.

But city health leaders want the mayor’s office to expand the number of sites across the system to avoid a bottleneck before the next round of holidays arrives.

“We need a system that can handle 80,000 tests a day or even double that,” said Mark Levine, chair of the city council’s health committee. “Throughout this entire pandemic we’ve had more testing disproportionately in wealthy areas. The city has done mobile sites and pop up sites in those neighborhoods which have been effective but we just need more of them.”

Levine on Twitter repped testing sites beyond the popular CityMD locations.

As for Miao, jamming cotton swabs into people’s nasal cavities for 12 hours a day wasn’t how most medical workers predicted the year to end. But the pandemic has upended expectations for what kind of tasks are essential and who should perform them.

“None of us were expecting to do a run of testing but this is what society needs from us right now,” said Miao, who trained as an emergency medicine physician. “We’re in a giant battle fighting this virus and this is the part we’re going to play. It’s not dramatic, and it’s not exciting, but it has to be done.”

Why Does It Take Hours to Get a COVID Test in New York?