How to get a COVID test in Massachusetts

A COVID-19 test swab in a vial. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A COVID-19 test swab in a vial. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Massachusetts.

The positive test rate has more than doubled over the past month, and the current case count mirrors last December, when the state was experiencing its second COVID surge. Health experts foresee the spike continuing after the Christmas and New Year's holidays. But a lot has changed since last year, with vaccines reducing the risk of severe disease. While hospitalizations and deaths are increasing during this wave (including among the vaccinated), they are muted compared to 2020's holiday season.

Despite spiking case numbers, travel is expected to be near pre-pandemic levels through the December holidays.

"If you’re going to be in a large group then testing becomes really important, because the chances that somebody is infected increases with the number of people there."

Matthew Fox

The number one way to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 this season is to get vaccinated, and boosted, health experts say. But if you're attending holiday gatherings or traveling, they are also strongly recommending that you take a coronavirus test given the current surge of the virus.

“If you’re going to be in a large group then testing becomes really important, because the chances that somebody is infected increases with the number of people there," says Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology and global health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Even if you are vaccinated, you can still become infected and transmit the virus to others. "Your vaccination status shouldn’t determine whether or not you get tested," Fox says. 

Editor's Note: On Jan. 11, 2022, the state's Department of Public Health issued an advisory saying that residents should seek COVID-19 tests only when exhibiting symptoms or five days following a known close contact. Residents do not need to confirm a positive rapid test with a PCR test, per the advisory.

DPH also urged employers, schools and childcare providers to not require a test for residents to return to work, school or childcare.

Here's what you need to know to help make the testing process a little easier this season.

Rapid Tests Vs. PCR Tests

There are two different types of diagnostic tests that can detect an active coronavirus infection: molecular tests (better known as PCR tests) and "rapid" antigen tests.

Of the two, PCR tests are more accurate. However, it can take longer to get results since the swab needs to go to a laboratory to be analyzed. Fox says the PCR tests help get the most accurate diagnosis for people with COVID symptoms. The results of PCR tests are also shared with health officials, which means they can be included in official coronavirus data.

At-home "rapid" antigen tests are less accurate, but provide much faster results. They typically take just 15 minutes and can be done anywhere. These tests answer the question of, “Do I have COVID right now that is contagious?” While positive results are typically highly accurate, negative results may need to be further confirmed with another antigen test or a PCR test. These are great to use if a person doesn't have symptoms, or has mild symptoms, and needs to interact with a group on a given day.

Fox says rapid tests are most likely to be accurate the more infectious you are.

You may want to confirm the results of a rapid test with a PCR test for added certainty. The results of a rapid test are considered valid for about 24 hours.

And health experts emphasize that if you are experiencing symptoms of illness, such as a fever or body aches, it is best to stay home and avoid infecting others, whether the symptoms are caused by the flu, the coronavirus or some other viral infection.

Where To Get A Rapid Test

Rapid tests, authorized by the FDA, can be found in pharmacies like CVS or Walgreens, and cost about $9 to $12, or more, for each test.

These tests may soon become more readily available and cheaper, with Gov. Charlie Baker announcing Monday that his administration is working on a bulk purchasing deal with manufacturers that would allow municipalities to order test kits at reduced prices for residents by January.

Baker also announced that the state will distribute 2.1 million free rapid antigen tests to 102 communities in an effort to help protect residents against the current surge in cases. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu made a similar announcement last week. The city is planning to distribute 20,000 free rapid at-home tests to communities with members who are at higher risk and are otherwise facing challenges around testing.

Starting in January, President Biden says the rapid tests will be reimbursable through health insurance, and for those without insurance, the government will provide free tests to community health clinics.

Where To Get A PCR Test

There are hundreds of testing sites listed on the state's COVID-19 testing website, many of which are free. You can use the search tool to find a testing location near you by entering your zip code. Some sites may require pre-screening, referral and/or an appointment, so be sure to contact the site prior to arrival. People can search for locations offering free testing by using the advance search options. If you can't find a site on the state's website, you should also check out your town or city's website. Boston, for example, has a list of sites with their hours and criteria for a test.

Some of the most accessible sites include the 38 Stop the Spread testing sites. They are mostly walk-up, free, and do not require you to be symptomatic to get a test. You can find these sites via the state's website, too.

"Your vaccination status shouldn’t determine whether or not you get tested."

Matthew Fox

Many Massachusetts residents can request home PCR testing kits to be mailed by the state at no cost. The qualifications include: individuals who live or work in a congregate setting; are experiencing symptoms; have recently been in contact with someone with COVID-19; or who have otherwise been recommended for testing. Details are available at the Pixel by LabCorp for Massachusetts website. The swab is mailed to you, and you have to mail it back, so factor that into your timeline for getting tested. There are also days that tests will not be processed around the holidays.

If you're uninsured, don't fret — many sites test uninsured individuals for free, but make sure to confirm with the provider.

Plan Ahead

You're probably going to have to get tested ahead of time if you're traveling out of the country. Be sure to book well in advance to meet the 72-hour window requirement for some destinations.

If you're traveling domestically and are not vaccinated, the CDC recommends that you take a COVID test one to three days before your trip.

If you're attending a gathering for the holidays, try and get tested beforehand to ensure the safety of the people you're with. If you can't find a PCR test appointment nearby, consider getting a rapid antigen test the morning before the gathering.

"By testing before you go to an event and isolating if you are positive, then we reduce the community level risk,” says Fox.

Also, consider who is going to be at any gatherings you attend and, in particular, their vulnerability. Individuals who are over 65 years old, immunocompromised or have other health conditions, or who are unvaccinated, are potentially at risk for the most severe consequences of COVID.

In the event you cannot find a test, but are experiencing symptoms, Fox says it's better to be safe than sorry.

"If you can’t get access to testing and you are having symptoms, it’s really important to do your best to isolate when possible, and stay distanced from people as much you can," he says. "Isolating is really critical. If we can’t isolate those who are infectious, we are never going to be able to slow transmission to the point at which we can go back to normal activities.”

This article was originally published on December 15, 2021.


Hafsa Quraishi Associate Producer, Here & Now
Hafsa Quraishi is an associate producer for Here & Now.



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