With COVID Surging, Here’s What You Need to Know About Tests, Treatments and Vaccines

With COVID Surging, Here’s What You Need to Know About Tests, Treatments and Vaccines
A health care worker signs people in outside an urgent care COVID testing site on Dyckman Street in Inwood, Oct. 6, 2021. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
By Imogen Mcnamara and Rachel Holliday Smith | SEP 25, 2023
Can you still get Paxlovid for free? Where did all the COVID testing sites go? And how do you get the new vaccine?

Recent weeks have brought a rise in COVID-19 cases across the city, returning many sniffling, coughing city dwellers to the days of testing, medicating and quarantining. But the infrastructure around getting help for COVID has changed since previous surges.

THE CITY spoke with health experts to find out the latest information on how to get (and report) a test right now, how to get COVID treatments — particularly Paxlovid — and when we’ll get the next round of boosters.

Got a question we haven’t answered here? Email ask@thecity.nyc with the subject line “COVID question.”

How To Get a COVID Test in New York City

Since the height of the virus’ spread in 2020 and 2021, there are fewer sites to get a free COVID test, but many are still operating.

The city runs four express testing locations where you can get a rapid PCR test — by appointment only — in Morrisania in The Bronx, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the Upper West Side in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens. The health department promises results within 24 hours.

PCR testing is also available at all 11 of the city’s public hospitals and its public Gotham Health Centers. You can call (844) NYC-4NYC which will transfer you to the COVID hotline to make an appointment.

Both the express testing locations and PCR tests at public hospitals are available regardless of immigration status. You do not need identification to get a test and all city-run sites operate at no-cost to the test seeker.

The federal government also reinstated its free at-home testing program. As of Sept. 25, every U.S. household is allowed to order four free at-home tests delivered through the postal service. To order yours, click here or call (800) 232-0233.

There are also over 200 locations around the city where you can get at-home tests for COVID for free. You can still get free at-home COVID testing kits at many public institutions and facilities like libraries, recreation centers and food pantries. For a full list of test pick-up locations maintained by NYC Health + Hospitals, click here.

What If My Home Test Is Expired?

Many New Yorkers have a small stockpile of at-home COVID tests, but beware that tests have expiration dates and the Federal Drug Administration does not recommend using them beyond the date printed on the box.

However, the FDA has extended the expiration date for some at-home test manufacturers who “provided data showing that the shelf-life is longer than was known when the test was first authorized,” the agency’s website says. To check your test’s expiration date, check the FDA’s COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests web page.

How To Report Your Tests Results

The CDC still “strongly encourages everyone” who takes an at-home COVID test to report the results, whether it is positive or negative, and recommends doing so through MakeMyTestCount.org, a collaboration between the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, National Institutes of Health and the health-care technology company Care Evolution.

New York State’s COVID testing tracker does not include self-reported at-home tests.

Even if the data from MakeMyTestCount is not used by your state or county, those who are using the at-home test data say it helps them develop a better virus surveillance tool for the future.

Having accurate testing data helps scientists understand how the new strain is spreading too.  When people test less or do not report cases it makes it more difficult for epidemiologists, said Dr. Albert Ko, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at Yale School of Public Health. “It makes it more challenging to understand is [the virus] more transmissible? Is it more virulent?” he said.

How To Get Paxlovid Now

If you do contract the virus, medications like Paxlovid can help alleviate symptoms and prevent hospitalization for high-risk patients.

People shop in a Walgreens pharmacy in Brooklyn during the coronavirus outbreak, May 20, 2020. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Right now, to get Paxlovid you need a prescription, which you can get from your doctor. You can also get a prescription from a state-licensed pharmacist, including those at popular chains like CVS, Walgreens or Duane Reade, as well as at digital Alto Pharmacy, which partners with the city to offer free home delivery.

“Most prescriptions are filled through pharmacies now,” said Patrick Gallahue, spokesperson from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

To be eligible for a prescription you must be over the age of 12 (and weigh over 88 pounds) and be at high-risk for hospitalization or death from COVID-19. This includes people with asthma, heart conditions, people who are over the age of 65 and those who are immuno-compromised. For more information see the list of at-risk conditions published by the CDC.

Paxlovid is free for now, but Pfizer has plans to put Paxlovid on the commercial market, with initial reports suggesting it could happen by mid-2023, though there has been no change for consumers as of yet.

While the medication itself is still free for now, be aware that if you are uninsured or under-insured, your pharmacy may charge you for a pharmacist consultation if you get a prescription that way.

There is currently an “ample” supply of the medication in New York and across the country, according to a spokesperson from NYC Health + Hospitals.

The Paxlovid I Got is Past Its Expiration Date. Is It Safe to Take?

When you are given your Paxlovid medication, you may find that the expiration date printed indicates that the medication is out of date.

Don’t worry: Pharmacists are aware of this and the medication you just received is likely perfectly fine to take. That’s because in 2022, Pfizer, with approval from the FDA, extended the expiration date of certain batches of Paxlovid from anywhere between 12 to 24 months.

Convincing customers of that, however, has been tough for pharmacists who spoke with THE CITY recently. In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a pharmacy technician said it’s “the biggest issue right now” in their store.

To check when your medication really expires under the FDA-approved extension, you can enter the lot number on the side or bottom of the corner here.

Residents and workers at a senior care facility in Upper Manhattan received their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, March 3, 2021. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When to Get the Next Booster Shot

The new COVID vaccine shot is now available for fall 2023. It is being administered through local pharmacies, and should be free to all patients regardless of insurance status.

For more information, read THE CITY’s guide on how to get your latest shot in New York City.

This story was published by THE CITY on September 25, 2023.

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