Through a labyrinth of scaffold netting, next to a home-printed ad for a $350 mobility scooter, I spot a sign confirming I’m in the right place: A maze of tents, tables, PPE-bedecked individuals and caution tape carefully routed around playground equipment in a NYCHA backlot, a setup which looks like a dystopic roadside America attraction.
But I have come to recognize this scene as a common format for COVID-19 testing sites.
This site is miles from my home and far shabbier than the senior center up my block where I got tested last month. But just as my friends promised, my test results come back in a mere 30 hours (the senior center took 11 days to confirm my negative test).
This is what it’s like to depend on the whisper network of coronavirus testing advice in NYC, seven months into the pandemic. With little reliable public information available on test time turnarounds, New Yorkers have developed their own culture for sharing location-based return rates. They’re doing it independent of any publicly available information, in Google Docs, social media comments and text threads. All this just so that friends, family and strangers can help each other fight the disease ravaging the world.
This ragtag information chain is centered on test sites’ lab contracts — the true determinant of how long results take to process. It means that individuals have been left to their own resources to piece together life-saving — but currently confidential — information hidden within the medical industry’s contract-based machinery.
“In the early days of COVID, the whisper network was based on where can you get a test. That’s no longer a problem.”
– Mark Levine, City Council member and chair of the Council Committee on Health
“There’s an incredible hunger for information about which locations have quicker testing, and it’s very difficult to ascertain in any systematic way other than firsthand accounts,” Mark Levine, City Council member and chair of the Council Committee on Health, told The Post. “It’s just not publicly available. Even I as an elected official don’t have access to it other than what I can gather anecdotally online.”
Now, Levine is working on a bill that would eliminate the need for a reliance on group e-mails and Facebook comments to get test results in less than a week. He hasn’t introduced the bill and gave no specifics on a timeline.
“You shouldn’t have to read through a comment thread on Twitter to figure this out. We’re drafting a bill that would require test sites to post their expected wait times for results and require the city to post that information on its central listing of test sites,” he exclusively told The Post. “While it’s true that most of the blame for the continuing shortage of rapid testing lies with the federal government, the least the city can do is give New Yorkers the power of information.”
This bill would formalize facts individuals are left to uncover by word of mouth while navigating NYC’s complex public testing system. For instance, the executive chairman of BioReference Laboratories told The Post it processes tests for 11 acute care hospitals and 70 ambulatory care facilities in the boroughs — but which ones, let alone information about the nature of those contracts, including which hospitals have expedited agreements, is not public knowledge.
The Post has learned that NYC Health + Hospitals followed Florida in severing ties with the lab Quest Diagnostics, which has been reported to have slower turnaround times than BioReference during times of high demand (in a statement to The Post, a Quest Diagnostics spokesperson said they have a two day turnaround average). But again, the specific sites this impacts is not accessible information.
Levine said the Department of Health runs nine clinics and one lab equipped with Cepheid machines which promise results within 24 hours; another DOH program offers ultra-fast turnaround antigen tests thanks to on-site Abbott machines. Information about these sites is technically accessible to the public, but so deeply buried it is unlikely individuals would know about these programs unless they were personally informed by a trusted source, who would likely only be aware of the fact that the sites deliver fast results, with little notion as to why.
“I don’t think people posting publicly even know who the lab is, they just know the location and the turnaround time,” said Levine.
Elementary school teacher Will Tesdell, 31, gets tested at a Health + Hospitals site, on the recommendation of a friend. The Harlem location is relatively fast, he said, but is certainly much slower than a Cepheid site a mile-and-a-half away. With no listed turnaround times, however, there is little way Tesdell could know he is needlessly waiting longer for results when a faster site is so close.
Meanwhile, Tesdell’s girlfriend, a researcher at NYU Langone, gets extremely fast results via the hospital’s in-house testing.
“I’m guessing they have labs on site,” Tesdell told The Post of how his partner can confirm her virus standing within six hours. He sticks to his public site, though, fearing a potential insurance nightmare from going to a private one.
The state of coronavirus testing in NYC has undeniably come a long way since the start of the pandemic, when personal connections and celebrity were required to secure the then-extremely limited, difficult-to-locate tests. But since June, Levine approximated, when testing became more accessible to city residents, the question has become not where there are tests but when sites will return results.
“In the early days of COVID, the whisper network was based on where can you get a test. That’s no longer a problem,” Levine said. Now the problem is where you can get tested and quickly know the result and, “That’s a harder one for the public.”
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