COVID-19 tests seem to be everywhere now, but that doesn’t make getting one easy.
Four months into the pandemic, Massachusetts has more tests, and testing sites, available than ever before. But it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the options or frustrated by the delays.
There are mobile units and walk-up clinics, city programs for residents only, and hot lines that require a doctor’s note. Many testing sites are appointment-only and booked days or weeks into the future. Some walk-ups have lines that wrap around the building.
After the test itself, another waiting game begins. With diagnostic labs across the country facing a backlog as cases soar in the Sunbelt, getting results can take up to 14 days.
With more and more reasons to seek a test — visiting at-risk relatives, returning to work or school, driving to Maine, ruling out coronavirus infection as flu season approaches — we wanted to know how easy it is to actually get one. We sent three Globe reporters to find out; they discovered that it takes a little research, patience, and perseverance.
Symptom-less in Somerville
At first blush, it looked as though I’d have to wait two whole weeks to get a free COVID-19 test in Somerville, where I live.
When I called a special hot line set up by city officials to schedule a swab test at a facility that recently moved to Assembly Square, the woman on the other end of the line delivered the somber news: The next available slot wasn’t until Aug. 4.
“We are booked up,” she said.
I decided to set it up anyway, just to see what the process entailed. Making the appointment was simple enough: The phone rang a few times, someone picked up, and within minutes I was giving out tidbits of personal information to lock in my time slot.
“What’s your date of birth,” the woman on the other end of the line said.
I gave it to her.
“This is my birthday,” she said, laughing. “Good people.”
Was this my in?
“Basically we’re best friends,” I said cheekily. “Does this mean I can get an earlier appointment?”
But alas, that wouldn’t be fair to the many others who are also scrambling to get tests, symptomatic or not. And who do not share our birthday.
I took the appointment for early next month anyway.
But as I did more research online, I discovered Somerville, which is doing its testing in partnership with Cambridge Health Alliance, has also been offering free testing through a special mobile unit. I hopped on the city’s website and found four open dates coming up.
I called the number for the mobile testing operation and secured a spot on July 29, an entire week sooner than my other appointment, which I later canceled. Same location. Better outcome. And I didn’t even share a birthday with the person who did my intake.
Wednesday marked the second time in recent months that I’ve scheduled a COVID-19 test in Somerville. Back in April, the city became the first community in the state to offer free on-demand testing to all residents — whether or not they feel sick, and regardless of their citizenship and health insurance status.
When I got that first test, I closed my eyes and thought about summer, trying to keep myself distracted as a doctor in protective gear reached through my car window and poked around in my nose with a swab. Bike rides. Swimming. Lobster rolls. Cape Cod vacations. The test was done in 10 seconds.
Now, summer is here. I’ve done some of those things, mask and all.
But unfortunately, the coronavirus is still here, too.
For my next test, I’ll have to picture the joys of something else: the crunch of fall foliage or maybe a pumpkin spice latte.
— STEVE ANNEAR
At the end of the line
The assignment seemed simple enough: Get a COVID-19 test today.
I couldn’t get tested in Somerville, where I live, because Steve had that covered, but the state lists dozens of walk-in testing centers: no appointments, referrals, or screening required.
I chose Tufts Medical Center in Boston for two reasons: It was just under 20 minutes away from my house, and a Google review said they had shorter, more flexible testing swabs than other places. Tufts was also listed on the City of Boston’s website, alongside a dozen or so other testing sites that were free and open to the public.
A free, slightly less painful test? Sign me up.
The free part turned out to be incorrect. I dug around a bit on Tufts’ website and found a warning that uninsured people would have to pay $135 out of pocket. Even some insurers, the website said, would not pay for testing for people without symptoms.
I was fortunate enough to be covered, so on Wednesday morning, I got to Tufts Medical Center shortly after its 8 a.m. opening time. It was a rainy morning, and I thought the weather might keep people away.
But when I arrived, I counted 43 people ahead of me. Six more soon filed in behind me. Only three had walked out.
Everyone wore masks. Strips of white tape reminded us to keep our distance, though the line extended well beyond the last marker, and people seemed to inch a little closer together — 5 feet, 4, 3.
Suddenly, I was worried: Aren’t some people here because they might be sick? Could I get sick in the hour stretching between me and the front doors? If I did, would my test results even show it?
Before I could convince myself that I was being paranoid, my editor called: “Go home.”
I was relieved. I was also back to square one.
Where can a person without a primary care physician, without symptoms, and without time to spare get tested immediately and also feel safe?
Among people in that position, I was pretty fortunate. I had a car, a job that would cover any costs, and all day to make this work. I had a feeling that this task would require all of those resources.
This time, it turned out, I was right.
PhysicianOne Urgent Care in Waltham fit the bill. I could sign up for a spot in a “virtual line,” where I could choose from a list of available times to show up and wait in a line that had been managed in advance.
Spots filled up fast. I snagged one for the end of the day, at 6:40 p.m. All I had to do was plug in my insurance or payment information and check in 15 minutes early.
So for the second time on Wednesday, I set out on a 20-minute drive. When I parked in front of PhysicianOne, I saw a sign on the door advertising its affiliation with Tufts Medical Center. That’s where the similarities with my earlier experience ended.
The parking lot was nearly empty. After checking in, I was told to wait in my car.
My phone rang a few minutes later, and a friendly physician’s assistant walked me through the process: Drive around back, stay in your car, and we’ll be right out to test you.
When I told her I might have been sick with COVID-19 back in March, she said I could get antibody testing as well. Since I was asymptomatic and hadn’t been exposed to a sick person, I would be allowed inside to have my blood drawn.
I drove around the building and got in line behind one other person. Both of us were waiting in our air-conditioned cars, dry and completely alone.
At 7, the same physician’s assistant walked out in protective gear, took my temperature, and pulled out the swab.
Ten seconds later, it was over.
She handed me a paper explaining how to view my online test results — which would not be available for 7-10 days — and sent me around front to have my blood drawn. By 7:08, I was headed home.
It turns out, getting a worry-free, same-day COVID-19 test is easy after all. I just had to be able to pay and drive 20 minutes in the right direction.
— DASIA MOORE
Asking the doctor
I wasn’t overly optimistic Wednesday morning as I picked up the phone and attempted to finagle a COVID-19 test the old-fashioned way — through my primary care physician.
My pessimism only grew when an office administrator informed me that I’d first need to make an appointment with my doctor, who would make a determination as to whether I actually needed a test.
As someone exhibiting no symptoms and seeking only peace of mind (and something to report), my chances did not seem likely.
Three hours later, though, I was sitting through my first-ever telemedicine appointment, held over Zoom. I told the doctor that though I was asymptomatic, my job had occasionally placed me among large groups of people. I was considering a summer trip to visit older family members, I said, and was hoping for reassurance. To my surprise, he said someone would call me that afternoon to schedule a test. Results would take two to seven days.
Less than an hour later, I received a call from a woman who told me there were lots of open appointments the following day at a Fenway-area testing site; I scheduled a test for 8:10 the next morning.
When I arrived there was no line, no hassle. A woman directed me toward a tent, I displayed my ID through a plastic barrier, then took a seat.
Within a minute, two women decked head-to-toe in safety gear walked over, asked me to tilt my head back, and unsheathed a swab roughly the length of Enes Kanter.
It hit me: In my quest to get tested, I’d neglected to devote sufficient anxiety to the act of being tested, a process that has been described, alternately, as “extremely painful,” “like being stabbed in the brain,” and akin to “drilling a hole in my eyeballs.”
None of those descriptions, I learned, did the experience justice.
As soon as the swab went in — deeper, and deeper, and deeper until, once it couldn’t go any further, it went much deeper — I began to count to 10 in my head, desperate for it to end.
When I had reached 7, certain I could not take a single second more of this disgusting torture, the doctor’s cheery voice piped up.
“OK, ready?” she said. “1 ................. 2 ................. 3 .................”
When it was over, I mumbled a quick thank you through the tidal wave of mucus pouring from my nostril and stumbled off toward the street. The doctor, I soon realized, must’ve mistakenly clipped my brain, because a couple minutes after leaving, I discovered that my nose had started bleeding fairly profusely.
Still, as I made the 2-mile walk home in the July heat I took quiet solace in the fact that I’d managed to land a test.
And I vowed never to take another one as long as I live.
— DUGAN ARNETT
Tips for getting your test
- Call first. Even if you do not need an appointment or can book one online, it’s wise to call the site ahead of time to ask a few questions. What should you expect when you arrive? Will you need ID or an insurance card? How long might you wait for results?
- If you have symptoms, contact your doctor. Chances are, a primary care physician will have the best information on how to get you tested quickly. They can also be on alert in case you develop other symptoms or need emergency care.
- Know what’s available in your town. City programs are most likely to offer free testing, and some allow walk-ins and testing for people without symptoms.
- Plan ahead. If your work or travel plans depend on having a negative test result, be prepared for a drawn-out process. It could take a few days to get a test and up to two weeks to get results.
- Stay isolated while you wait. A positive result that comes days after testing will have left plenty of time for you to infect others. And a two-week-old negative result isn’t much of a guarantee if you’ve left yourself vulnerable to infection in the meantime. To keep yourself and others safe, stay at home while you wait for results.
Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore. Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com. Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.