With positive test rates for COVID-19 inching up across the city and the holidays fast approaching, demand for coronavirus tests is surging and New Yorkers are once again finding themselves waiting on hours-long lines to get tested.
CityMD, with 76 urgent care centers across the five boroughs, has the dubious honor of having some of the worst wait times for a free test.
The person at the front of a particularly long CityMD line on Atlantic Avenue near Nevins Street in Boerum Hill Friday afternoon told Gothamist it had taken him four hours to reach the door.
Just before 4 p.m., a CityMD worker came out to inform those just joining the back of that line that there was still a three-and-a-half to four hour wait with a chance they wouldn’t get in for a test that day.
“It’s just not likely I’m gonna get a test tonight,” said Henry Hoffmann, who is in town from California and wants to get a test before heading to Washington, D.C. to see family for Thanksgiving. “If I come at 7 a.m. tomorrow, I can be the first one there and just get a test right away.”
CityMD doesn’t open until 9 a.m. on Saturdays, but the worker who came out to speak to Hoffmann and others on line told them it’s common for people to show up early. She said there were 50 people waiting by the time the site opened Friday morning.
CityMD, which also has multiple locations on Long Island, in Rockland and Westchester counties, and in New Jersey, began closing all of its locations an hour-and-a-half early this week. In an email to patients last week, the urgent care chain said, “Our site staff and doctors have been seeing patients well beyond normal closing time for months now, and we’ve reached the point where they are sacrificing their own safety and health.”
In response to a query from Gothamist over whether CityMD was taking any measures to address heightened demand, a spokesperson said on Friday that demand for COVID-19 testing “has never been higher.”
“ …[W]e ask patients to please plan accordingly. We are very proud of how hard our team is working to handle this increased demand,” the spokesperson added.
Most people on line at the Boerum Hill location Friday said they were prepared for a long wait because they lived in the area and had passed by the line before. Some brought books or friends to keep them company; two people had resorted to playing hand games, and one woman pored over spreadsheets on her laptop while standing on line. Still, Hoffmann suggested it might be better at this point to let people register for appointments online.
New Yorkers visiting other CityMD locations this week reported similar wait times. One woman told Gothamist she waited nearly three hours after arriving at the Prospect Heights CityMD at 9:45 a.m.
Testing has increased in the city and state over the past few months. On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State had performed a record number of tests, 207,907, on Friday.
A portion of those getting tested in this period include college students. Earlier in the week, Cuomo and six other governors in the northeast encouraged colleges and universities to provide testing to students before they leave campus for the Thanksgiving break to reduce potential spread of the virus. The State University of New York says that they are wrapping their required testing of 140,000 students by early next week. SUNY students will now go fully remote well into the next semester.
According to data from the state, testing has more than doubled since September (the data is a blend of results from the week preceding the day on the chart).
In New York City, testing has increased by about 60% since September (the data can lag by 3-4 days).
Eileen Clancy, who lives in the East Village, said she first tried the CityMD on East 14th Street Wednesday evening after beginning to feel under the weather a few days earlier. When she got there, she found that someone had already been designated as the last person to be seen that day. She then made her way over to the West 14th Street location, where she waited three hours in the cold.
Clancy says CityMD, which is privately run, should be working with the city to address the long lines, or at least improve the experience for people trying to get tested. “We’re all in this together,” she said. “It can’t just be that people show up and they get treated like crap. I saw someone who spent over two hours there and just left.”
Got to Hoboken’s CityMD almost two hours before they open today. Line circled the entire block already, at least 100 ppl waiting.
Every testing site within a 2 hour drive is booked out for days. CDC: “Be responsible, get tested.” But good luck finding one. How is this ok?
— Shannon Lynch 😷 (@shannonblynch) November 21, 2020
While some people may be considering lesser-known urgent care centers and their doctors’ offices, there are also nearly 70 walk-in sites managed by NYC Health+Hospitals. One person reported a five-hour long wait for a free test at Bellevue hospital in Manhattan Thursday. On Friday, NYC Health + Hospitals tweeted at 12:47 p.m. that the Bellevue testing center would not be letting anyone else on line that day. “Those already in line will be seen,” the public health system said.
A spokesperson for NYC Health + Hospitals did not respond to a request for comment Friday on what the city is doing to address the increasingly long wait times for COVID-19 tests at some its sites.
Still, other city-run sites had more manageable waits.
Margaret Bortner said the hour-and-a-half-long wait at the city-run testing site at the Red Hook Recreation Center Friday evening seemed reasonable compared to the three-hour wait she saw at a CityMD earlier that day. Bortner was there with her sister, brother-in-law, and young nephews and said the kids wouldn’t have been able to handle the three-hour line.
This was the first time the group was getting tested. Bortner said one of her nephews attends a school where another student’s babysitter recently tested positive for COVID-19.
“We’re a couple of places removed from that but want to be careful,” Bortner said. “Also, we would like to see our parents on Thanksgiving. They’re getting tested as well so we can all be in the same room together.”
Bortner said her group takes other precautions as well, including mostly staying within their small pod and trying to socialize outdoors.
Public health experts say if people are going to friends’ or family members’ homes for the holidays this year, the best course of action is to quarantine beforehand. A negative test result doesn’t necessarily mean someone is not infected with COVID-19, as the tests aren’t fool-proof and it can take days for a new infection to show up.
Abigail Hitchcock, who waited nearly three hours outside the Boerum Hill CityMD Friday, was contemplating her family’s Thanksgiving plans. She and her husband were getting tested because they wanted to see Hitchcock’s father, who just turned 80, and her stepmother this weekend.
“We decided we would take the chance to take the trip, even though people are saying not to travel,” she said. “He only turns 80 once so he feels comfortable with it too.”
They might spend Thanksgiving with her mother, who is considering coming into the city for the day. “We might, last minute, decide not to have her come in or she might not feel comfortable,” Hitchcock said. “It feels pretty safe; it’s all very scary at the same time. So we’re going to keep on playing it by ear, seeing how the rates are.”
Where you can get a coronavirus test, from our testing explainer:
For the full range of testing sites, New York City refers users to a search website run by the health data firm Castlight. Note that some of the clinics on the list may charge for testing. (Note: NYC’s public hospital system, Health+ Hospitals, has its own local labs which helps with testing result turnaround time, while clinics like CityMD rely on shipping the samples out for results.)
For a full list of free and walk-in testing sites, New Yorkers can find convenient locations by:
The urgent care clinic CityMD gives free tests to all uninsured New Yorkers under an agreement with the city.
Public school families and staff are urged to visit one of 22 priority testing sites run by the city’s Health and Hospitals system. No appointment is needed.