With cases of omicron and delta still surging and the holidays here, many people are looking to get tested for COVID-19. And considering that the city was averaging about 1,407 new cases per day as of earlier this week — a fivefold increase since Nov. 30 and a record high — that push is understandable.
But at-home testing kits are increasingly difficult to come by as demand outpaces supply. For example, at a series of giveaways last week, the city’s health department quickly distributed about 24,000 kits, causing one giveaway event to be canceled due to a lack of available tests. In a statement, the city noted that the health department has placed orders for additional kits, but it is “unsure of when these orders will be fulfilled.”
Plus, Philly will soon see a vaccine mandate implemented for indoor dining. And through Jan. 17, businesses that serve food can choose to accept negative tests from the past 24 hours in lieu of proof of vaccination — but only if they come from non-home testing providers like labs or pharmacies.
Despite a lack of free at-home test kits, there are many places in the city where you can get a COVID-19 test at no cost to you — but it might take a little legwork. Here is what you need to know:
Where can I get a free COVID-19 test?
There are locations throughout Philadelphia offering COVID-19 testing services, including pharmacies, community centers, health clinics, primary care centers, hospitals, urgent care facilities, and pop-up testing sites. The city maintains a map of about 100 testing sites on its website, and also keeps a running list of testing pop-ups around the city from organizations such as the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, Philadelphia FIGHT, and the health department.
You may also be able to find a testing location near you on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, which has a map of testing sites by states. The health-care start-up Curative also keeps a list of testing sites. And Labcorp runs a service where you can order PCR self-testing kits to your home, and mail them to be analyzed at a lab.
In many cases, testing sites will not require out-of-pocket fees for you to be tested, though they may bill your insurance, if you have it, for a visit fee, the city health department notes online. Some sites also have requirements such as:
Making an appointment to be tested
Having a referral from a doctor for a test
Meeting certain criteria, such as recent exposure to COVID-19
Staying in your car, if it is a drive-thru site
Additionally, different testing sites may offer different types of COVID-19 tests, such as PCR or rapid antigen, which vary in terms of how long it takes to get your results. So, if possible, it’s best to plan ahead and contact the testing location to see if its testing meets your needs, and if you are eligible to receive a test free of charge.
Regardless of where you go, you may experience a substantial wait in line, or difficulty in securing an appointment if the site does not accept walk-ins due to the demand for testing. For example, between Dec. 20 and 22, more than 39,000 people were tested at city sites alone, The Inquirer reported.
What if I have insurance?
While insurance is not required to get tested for free, some sites may bill your insurance company for the cost of the visit. As the Pennsylvania Department of Health notes online, lab tests must be covered if your doctor or other provider has ordered a test because you have symptoms or a confirmed or likely recent exposure, per provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act. If you don’t have symptoms or recent exposure, your insurance might not be required to cover potential testing costs, so check with it in advance.
Insurance can also help when it comes to being tested at an urgent care facility, if it includes a visit with a clinician. As Vybe notes online, neither rapid PCR nor antigen tests are covered by insurance if done without a full visit there, so they suggest getting a test alongside a clinician visit if you are symptomatic or think you’ve had significant exposure, which should not result in out-of-pocket costs to you.
What if I don’t have insurance?
If you do not have insurance, there are still many places where you can be tested free of charge, including city clinics and pop-ups, community centers, and pharmacies. In most cases, you’ll be asked to provide identification but can still get a test if you don’t have it, the city says online.
Pop-ups from the city health department, BDCC, and Philadelphia FIGHT, for example, all advertise no out-of-pocket costs for COVID testing at their facilities. And places such as CVS, Labcorp’s at-home collection service, RiteAid, Walgreens, and Quest Diagnostics also offer free testing, though many of them ask that you fill out a questionnaire to determine your eligibility. Generally, questionnaires ask about your exposure to COVID-19, potential symptoms, and current health status, as well as demographic and identification information.
Can I get an at-home rapid test for free?
Right now, most likely not. Private insurers are not currently required to pay for the cost of at-home rapid tests, like those you can buy at pharmacies and other stores. That will change in the near future, per an announcement from the White House earlier this month that indicated individuals with private health insurance will soon be able to be reimbursed for the costs of the tests.
“More than 150 million Americans on private health insurance will be able to submit receipts for at-home tests directly to their health insurance plans, so they can go to their local pharmacy, they can order online, and then get reimbursed,” said White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients. Further guidance for the reimbursement plan will be released by Jan. 15.
The White House has also announced a program that will work to distribute free rapid at-home tests, but that effort will not begin until sometime in January. About 500 million tests are slated to be distributed nationwide, but when the program will launch and how it will work is not yet clear.
What if I can’t get tested right now?
The city has advised that if you think you have COVID-19 but cannot find a test, you should “assume you are positive until you can get tested.”
In general, that means that as long as you do not have symptoms, you should isolate yourself from others for five days, and wear a mask when around others for an additional five days after your isolation period ends. Folks who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and are fully vaccinated and boosted should wear a mask when around others for 10 days, and get tested on day five of that period.
Additionally, the city health department has asked that people not go to area hospitals’ emergency department looking for testing, and use those locations only if you are experiencing an emergency such as shortness of breath or chest pain, which can be symptoms of COVID-19.