NY COVID testing up 42% from last fall. What to know: Test sites, home kits, vaccine rules

·6 min read

As the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant surged this fall, New York’s coronavirus testing rate increased by more than 42% from the prior year while identifying infections early remained crucial in limiting outbreaks.

The statewide tally of COVID-19 tests topped 14.2 million between Sept. 1 and Nov. 23. That’s up from about 10 million tests during the same period a year ago.

The ongoing testing spike this fall comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in many communities outside the New York City area outpaced the same period last year, despite a statewide partial COVID-19 vaccination rate of about 77%.

Beyond rising coronavirus cases, New York’s increase in testing also stemmed from state regulations requiring some unvaccinated workers to undergo weekly testing.

The state Department of Corrections, for example, reported this month about 11,700, or 46%, of its workers who declined vaccination had been undergoing weekly testing since the rules took effect on Oct. 12.

Further, the pool of unvaccinated workers in New York requiring weekly testing is expected to grow, as the federal vaccinate-or-test mandate applying to all employers with at least 100 workers takes effect in January. It is currently being challenged in court by several other states.

Authorities also plan to significantly boost supplies of at-home rapid COVID-19 tests in New York and nationally next month, as the White House spends nearly $2 billion to increase access to the kits that return results in 15 minutes.

All of the developments underscored how COVID-19 testing will remain a key factor as COVID-19’s threat lingers into the new year, alongside the push to boost vaccination rates to curb the virus’ spread during the holiday season.

"Get the vaccine if you have not already, get the booster shot to add another layer of defense, get tested before gathering with others, and stay home if you feel sick,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said last week.

“This is no time to let our guard down."

How to get COVID tests in New York

A sign outside of a hospital advertises COVID-19 testing  in New York City.
A sign outside of a hospital advertises COVID-19 testing in New York City.

Amid the Thanksgiving holiday rush, COVID-19 testing availability and wait times for results varied across the state, according to a USA TODAY Network review of the state’s test-finding website run by Castlight.

Many of the nearly 2,500 pharmacies, urgent cares, hospitals and testing sites at medical centers and public buildings posted test-result wait times between one to three days. The sites also offered varying options for walk-in and appointment testing. Some sites expanded operating hours due to the Thanksgiving test demand surge.

Numerous testing sites also posted test-result wait times between three to five days, while several had waits of up to eight days.

More: As COVID surges, NY's flu season is off to a troubling start. Will 'twindemic' hit?

Statewide, the average wait-time for test results was two days during the pre-Thanksgiving testing scramble last week, according to the state Department of Health.

Still, it remains difficult to fully evaluate testing resources because the state doesn’t track the vaccination status of teachers and school staff. Reports from school districts, however, suggested thousands of unvaccinated school workers get weekly tests as required by state regulation.

Meanwhile, the mandatory testing of unvaccinated workers in state government and schools is being funded primarily by federal pandemic response spending.

To find a local testing site in New York, visit the website coronavirus.health.ny.gov — or call the state hotline at 1-888-364-3065.

Since March 2020, New York has reported nearly 80 million COVID-19 tests overall, including nearly 2.7 million positive results.

During the fall surge, the statewide test positivity rate has steadily climbed, with the seven-day average hovering just below 4% last week. Daily case totals spanned between 5,000 and 8,000 in recent weeks, state data show.

Some upstate regions, including the Finger Lakes and Mohawk Valley, had positivity rates between 7% and 9%. Others, such as the Mid-Hudson and Southern Tier, had rates between 3% and 5%.

What to know about at-home COVID tests in NY

The Excelsior Pass app produces a QR code that can be read by a scanner to verify a person's COVID-19 vaccine and testing status.
The Excelsior Pass app produces a QR code that can be read by a scanner to verify a person's COVID-19 vaccine and testing status.

In September, the Biden administration announced it would spend nearly $2 billion to purchase about 280 million coronavirus home tests to supply long-term-care facilities, community testing sites, homeless shelters, prisons, jails and other centers that serve vulnerable populations.

Retailers Amazon, Kroger and Walmart will also sell home test kits at a discount of up to 35% from retail prices as part of the White House plan, USA TODAY reported. The retail costs for a test kit, which can include two tests, currently varied from $22 to $30, though some online sellers posted kits for substantially higher prices as some retailers reported being out of stock in various stores.

More: NY's nurses endured the unimaginable. Here's how they're still fighting COVID

In New York, Hochul last week noted the state was ordering home COVID-19 testing kits as part of her administration’s plan to combat the virus, suggesting it would expand its existing use of the kits for state employees.

The state Department of Health did not immediately answer questions last week about plans to improve access to home test kits for New Yorkers.

Antigen-based home tests have become increasingly popular because they don’t require a prescription and can be bought at retail stores or online. They have proven to be accurate at identifying COVID-19 infections but remain less accurate than PCR tests performed by labs, doctors or other medical settings.

The two types of tests use different technology. Antigen tests detect proteins found on the surface of the coronavirus. PCR tests detect a virus' genetic material and are often completed in a lab, though some rapid non-lab versions are available too.

As home tests increase, some public health officials have expressed concerns the positive results are excluded from daily analysis tracking the virus’ spread.

That means authorities are missing key details about the scope of outbreaks. But some local health agencies, such as Monroe County, request people submit home test positive results via online portals to better monitor outbreaks.

The tests done in medical settings are routinely reported to local, state and federal public health agencies. And experts estimate about 10% of home test results are reported nationally, either to doctors or public health agencies.

Ken Alltucker of USA TODAY contributed to this report.

Support local journalism

We cover the stories from the New York State Capitol and across New York that matter most to you and your family. Please consider supporting our efforts with a subscription to the New York publication nearest you.

David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached at drobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter: @DrobinsonLoHud

This article originally appeared on New York State Team: How to find COVID tests in NY? What to know amid 42% spike in tests

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting