Health experts stress that getting tested for COVID, even when fully vaccinated, is an effective way to stop the spread of the coronavirus faster. But what if you're struggling to find a timely COVID test in the Bay Area — especially when you need the results as soon as possible — or accessing a free appointment?
Keep reading for how to find a COVID test near you, and your options depending on your reason for getting tested.
If you were in close contact with someone with COVID but have tested negative five days after exposure, the CDC says that even if you're likely not infected, "an infection cannot be completely ruled out" and you should follow their quarantine and isolation guidance, which includes monitoring yourself for symptoms and wearing a well-fitting mask.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, stresses that the timing of your exposure definitely matters for whether you get a test, and when. If you’ve been in close contact with someone with a COVID diagnosis (that means you were together, unmasked, for more than 15 minutes and less than six feet apart), "we usually start thinking of exposure as around two days before the diagnosis of the friend," Chin-Hong said.
"For example, if somebody went to a party with somebody five days ago, but then didn't hang out with that person since five days ago, but that person got diagnosed two days ago, they wouldn't need to worry about it," Chin-Hong said.
If you're getting tested to travel internationally, be sure to check the rules for that specific country, as they may have recently changed due to the omicron variant. Also, be sure of the time frames required to test for international travel, and be careful of time limits expressed in calendar days vs. hours (for example, "two days before your flight" rather than "48 hours before your flight").
Where to find a COVID test in the Bay Area
If you're looking for COVID-19 testing in the Bay Area, you have several options — and for many testing sites you still don’t need health insurance.
Unless otherwise noted, testing sites use nasal or oral swabs to determine whether you have the virus — not an antibody (serology) blood-based test to determine whether you've been exposed.
Most sites require appointments, and test results should be available within three days. If you need results sooner, be sure to select a rapid test.
Find a COVID test through your health care provider
If you have health insurance and get health care through a regular provider, such as Kaiser Permanente, you may find it easiest to get a COVID test through that provider.
Log into your provider's website or app and look for COVID testing options to make an appointment.
Spokespeople for both CVS and Walgreens say these pharmacies are "committed" to providing access to COVID services, including testing — and that the companies are waiting on further news about federal funding.
CVS and Walgreens have specifically confirmed that uninsured patients can still access free COVID testing at their pharmacies right now. A Rite Aid spokesperson says that the chain "will continue to provide free drive-thru COVID-19 PCR testing through the end of May as part of a partnership with HHS."
Again, be extra-sure to check the billing details when making an appointment for a COVID test, especially if you're uninsured.
If your child attends a public school in the Bay Area, or if you're a school district employee, you may find that COVID testing is offered through that school district. For example, Oakland Unified School District offers COVID testing for all its staff, including employees, contractors and volunteers. Students and OUSD family members also are eligible.
Find a COVID test through your Bay Area county
The Bay Area county where you live, work or study will offer you a COVID test through their public health department. If you are uninsured, most county testing sites can still offer you a test.
Use the links below to find community testing sites in your area.
Some sites may continue offering free COVID tests to those without insurance, whereas others may now ask you to pay an out-of-pocket fee to get a test if you don’t have health insurance. Some testing sites may have made changes to their eligibility criteria for uninsured people. (Read more about how different sites are handling the changes.)
In short: Always check the billing details when making an appointment, especially if you're uninsured. And if you do have health coverage, make sure to ask the test provider how they will bill the cost of the test to your insurance company. Insurance companies are required to cover the full cost of COVID-19 tests done at testing sites.
These results may be duplicated on your county's public health website (see above).
Using a COVID self-test at home
The CDC advises that while a negative result from a home COVID test "indicates that you may not be infected," it "does not rule out an infection." It's therefore recommended that you repeat the test for certainty, especially if you're getting tested to be able to attend an event.
Doing two or more tests over several days with at least 24 hours between tests — with one test as close as possible to the event you're hoping to attend — "improves the reliability of testing and reduces your risk of transmitting disease to others even further," says the CDC.
There are many types of home COVID testing kits available. One of the most well-known is the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test. If you suspect you've been exposed to COVID, or are experiencing symptoms and are quarantining yourself to avoid risking exposure for others, you might consider asking a friend or community member to purchase a COVID home testing kit for you, or to use the services of a delivery company from a pharmacy like CVS or Walgreens.
How to get free or low-cost at-home COVID tests
The cost to diagnose COVID-19 is an eligible medical expense for tax purposes, which means you can use your health flexible spending account (health FSA), health savings account (HSA), health reimbursement arrangement (HRA), or Archer medical savings account (Archer MSA) to pay for or get reimbursed for an at-home COVID test kit.
You can now order up to eight free at-home COVID-19 tests online from the federal government and the United States Postal Service. Previously, the federal government provided only four free tests per household but, on March 7, allowed for people who have already received their original four tests to make a second order.
Yes, getting a COVID test is still important if you're vaccinated
We now know that breakthrough COVID infections — when a fully vaccinated person tests positive for the coronavirus — aren't as rare as we once thought. But even though it might feel like everybody knows somebody who got a breakthrough infection, these cases are still statistically uncommon. And most importantly, these cases are very unlikely to result in hospitalization or death — which is the whole point of a vaccine against disease.
So if you get COVID when you're vaccinated, your mind might be less on your personal health risks and more on the danger of spreading it to others, Chin-Hong says.
"As a vaccinated person, you are very unlikely to go to the hospital, get in a breathing tube and die," Chin-Hong says. "What I can tell you is you potentially could transmit it to others."
Knowing with certainty that you are not infected, he stresses, can make a huge difference for those who are much more vulnerable to the coronavirus — like children under 5 who aren't yet eligible for a vaccine, or the immunocompromised — especially over the holidays, where gathering with friends and family is common.
"Knowledge is power,” he says. “Not knowing you have [COVID-19] is much worse than knowing you have it." And if your test comes back positive, you can then let those with whom you’ve been in close contact know so they can also get tested and take preventive measures over the holidays.
"You may break the chain of transmission," Chin-Hong said.
A reminder of COVID symptoms to watch out for
As of November, the CDC recommends you keep an eye out for symptoms of COVID including:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
Sneezing also is now being seen among some fully vaccinated folks as a COVID-19 symptom.
"Sneezing hadn’t been seen before until delta, among vaccinated folks," Chin-Hong explains. He notes that sneezing could be mistaken for allergies or a mild cold, which could dissuade folks from getting tested. But it’s best to be completely sure of your own status, he said.
Fully vaccinated people may avoid the worst symptoms thanks to the vaccine, "but in the meantime, you probably are exposing a lot of other people to COVID-19 unknowingly," he said.
Even though the infection rate among vaccinated people is low, vaccinated people who are infected with the delta variant still carry the same amount of the virus in their nose and throat compared to people who are unvaccinated and infected with the delta variant. What this means is that those who are vaccinated “don’t tend to be as sick as the unvaccinated,” Maldonado explains. “But they could potentially spread [COVID] more.”
You have unvaccinated kids in your home
If you have children under 5 in your home, who aren’t eligible yet for COVID vaccination, you might want to regularly test them yourself to ensure they’re not bringing COVID home from a caregiver or day care — or that you’re bringing COVID into the home and infecting them. Read more on keeping children safe from the delta variant.
You'll be traveling to a country that demands a test
Many countries are requiring entrants to present a negative COVID test taken within a certain time frame of departure — rules and time frames that may have recently changed with the news of the omicron variant. Airlines may ask for proof of this test before you’re allowed to board a flight.
A version of this story was originally published on Dec. 10, 2021. KQED's Matthew Green and Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí contributed to this story.