Here we are, about two years into this pandemic, and many Americans are still having a hard time finding tests for Covid-19.
The first thing to know: Don't wait until the last minute. Even if you intend to take your test close to your departure, appointments are full, kits are selling out, and laboratories are taking longer than usual, so it's smart to secure a test as early as possible. Some options to try:
1. Order an at-home test ahead of time.
Some of those companies will walk you through the testing process on a video call using a service like Zoom or Skype.
With the arrival of the Omicron variant, though, there's a big problem here: The incubation period of the new strain is now reportedly as short as 48 to 72 hours. That makes planning ahead for a test—and waiting to receive one by delivery—very difficult.
2. Try to find over-the-counter tests at local pharmacies.
This is the first place everyone looks, however, so tests are likely to be sold out. Most pharmacies keep them behind the counter so they don't get stolen. Be sure to ask an employee about supplies.
Some test makers include QuickVue, Ellume, and BinaxNow (here's a store locator from that one's manufacturer, Abbott). Keep in mind that if an over-the-counter test is not administered by a professional observer, it won't be accepted for international travel—but at least you'll know your status.
3. Ask local pharmacies if they're testing.
Many are, although almost all of them require you to make advance reservations online. Generally, appointments open up about 3–5 days ahead.
Think of all the stores near you—not only big chains like CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and Walmart (via Quest Diagnostics) but also mom-and-pop stores, which may have more availability because they are off some customers' radars.
4. Check your local health department(s) for area resources.
Search the Web for the name of your state plus the phrase "Covid-19 test location." States tend to regulate Covid-19 testing, and many of them have posted information pages with links that purport to help citizens connect with tests. This is where you're most likely to find free tests, but because of that, it's where you're also most likely to find long waits or no availability.
Warning: Some states seem to have been asleep at the switch as the Omicron variant approached. For example, in late December, the official Test Iowa page warned people that "test kit pick up and drop off sites may be closed December 23, 2021 through January 4, 2022." That would make it impossible to obtain tests at a critical moment in the virus' spread.
Once you have searched for your state's Covid-19 testing locations, search again using the name of your city instead. Most large municipalities in the United States maintain their own lists of testing locations.
Some cities have even done a decent job of telegraphing real-time availability. New York City's hospitals frequently update a PDF with estimated current wait times at their testing centers.
On the federal level, the Department of Health and Human Services has a database of testing locations nationwide. Go to www.hhs.gov/coronavirus/community-based-testing-sites and scroll down to your state.
5. Check your health insurer.
If you have a health insurer, call it. Some health plans may direct you to preferred testing locations that you might not have known about through a government search.
Sometimes, people with existing health conditions or who are 65 or older will qualify for home testing. Your insurer should know if that's something you'll be covered for.
6. Ask your employer.
Some large companies have partnerships with testing facilities. Do you know if your employer has a recommendation?
The same goes for any large group, union, or association that you're a member of—it never hurts to ask.
7. Check your local walk-in clinics.
Now we move to the more expensive options—but they're also the ones most likely to have availability.
Walk-in clinics aren't quite hospitals and they're not private practices—they're in the liminal space of health care, designed to fill some gaps in America's failing patchwork system. Although these places don't necessarily pop into your mind first, many offer Covid-19 testing in addition to their other services.
Your health insurance may even cover part or all of the expense, so ask. In fact, many health plans partner directly with these facilities as a way of avoiding the expense of hospital visits.
Search the Web for "urgent care near me" to see what comes up. Also check with your health insurer (if you have one) and with your city or county health department to see which urgent care locations it knows about.
8. Try your airport.
While health plans and local governments usually direct you to free or low-cost testing that will take a few days to yield a result, you can opt to pay (typical price: between $65 and $150) for rapid testing that brings you results within an hour or two.
So many international flights now require negative Covid-19 tests that a cottage industry of rapid-result coronavirus testing services has sprung up around airports—so that's a great place to look.
Search the internet for your three-letter airport code and "Covid rapid testing" to see what's nearby. If your airport handles international flights, it might host temporary testing labs inside the terminal, and because those labs are used to validate eligible passengers at the ticketing phase of travel, the testing centers will likely be located before the security checkpoint. You won't necessarily need a plane ticket to access them.
You'd think that by now it would be easier to test, but it's not. We hope this checklist helps.
If, after trying all the above, you still can't find a test, what should you do?
You might have to go back to the O.G. method of protecting others from Covid-19: Quarantine beforehand.
Many experts are saying that isolating for three days might be enough time to determine whether you've been infected with Omicron—though testing at the end of that isolation is probably the best way to make absolutely sure.