Medical Examiner

Getting a COVID Test in New York Is Finally Easy. This Is What It’s Like.

After months of waiting, I could finally walk into CityMD and get a test within 30 minutes.

A health care worker puts a nasal swab up a woman's nose
A health care worker takes a nasal swab sample in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City on May 13. Angela Weiss/Getty Images

As New York City’s first day of cautious reopening came to a close, I did what Gov. Andrew Cuomo is urging all residents to do: I got a test for the novel coronavirus.

Getting a test for the virus once felt like a fantasy. Back in March, as the pandemic was rapidly becoming an emergency in the U.S. after government officials botched the window of opportunity to identify cases and contain the spread, I’d edited a piece by Janet Freeman-Daily, a lung cancer patient living in the Seattle area who couldn’t get a test despite extensive efforts, high-risk status, and a bout of nasty pneumonialike symptoms. In those weeks, many people like Freeman-Daily rode out presumable cases of COVID-19 in their homes, without in-person care from doctors, or even concrete knowledge of exactly what they were weathering. We were all asked to basically assume we had the virus; I remember spending a frenetic Monday in late March smelling candles after early data suggested the virus made people unable to taste and smell. Actual tests seemed to be reserved for the lucky ill and famous people.

So it felt a bit bizarre to me when on Monday, I popped into a CityMD and managed to get a test with approximately no more time and effort than it takes to grocery shop. There was no line. I spent about 10 minutes in the waiting room, and about 10 minutes in an exam room before a doctor clad in a face shield and gloves came in, told me to lower my mask, and stuck an elongated Q-tip deep into my head, up one nostril, then the other. It felt less pleasant than twisting a Q-tip around in my ears but still viscerally satisfying. I left tearing slightly and sneezing—as the doctor said might happen—and with a tingly sensation up my nose. I expected it to hurt badly, so I was excited about the ease of it. As a person living in the national epicenter of the pandemic and with a cabal of roommates and a too-fuzzy-for-comfort quarantine bubble, I finally had a sense of control. Maybe this is how I live now, getting regular tests for the coronavirus. Maybe this is what could finally make me feel safe.

The notion that the test could allow anyone to make perfect choices is a fantasy. For one thing, it could be a week before I get a result, the doctor told me. This is a woefully long time to go without information, especially considering the directive to wait a few days between a potential exposure and getting a test. False negatives are another big issue; if my test comes back negative, I will continue to live in the ill-defined space of sort of assuming I have the virus. But there are still reasons to be optimistic about the uptick in testing availability. Should the swab test come back positive, I could quarantine completely to avoid spreading the virus to others, and alert others in my network to get tested and take precautions themselves. This is much better than nothing. The more people who are able to confirm they are positive, the better off we’ll all be.

Luckily, my experience in New York, where testing is free at CityMD even for the uninsured, isn’t unique. Across the country, pop-up testing sites are opening to test protesters (health experts and officials are recommending that protesters assume they’ve been exposed to the virus). In more and more places, you can get a test if you don’t have symptoms. Arika Thames, a recent college grad in D.C. who attended protests, told me all it took to get a next-day appointment was a five-minute screening call. “It was a surprisingly super simple process that gave me some peace of mind,” she told me in an email. When I asked on Twitter, I heard about similar experiences from Philly to Minnesota to L.A. It’s not universally easy to get a test; friends in other places—Seattle, the Bay Area—reported wait times of a week or more (ease or difficulty in getting a test probably comes down to a combination of regional regulations, and what happens to be available near you; my survey was extremely unscientific). Getting a test, especially getting one just to make sure, still costs time that’s easier to take if you have paid sick days. And when I walked past CityMD on Tuesday, I found a line that spanned the block; the people at the front told me they’d been waiting for 45 minutes. Maybe it’s just because we started off so miserably that this, now, feels like such a relief. Nonetheless, it does.