Health

How to Get Tested for COVID-19 in Boston

Want to get tested for the coronavirus in Boston? Here's everything you need to know.


A medical professional administers a coronavirus test at a drive-thru testing site at Cambridge Health Alliance Somerville Hospital on April 28, 2020 in Somerville, Massachusetts. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Should I get tested for COVID-19?

You’ve probably wondered this more than once in the last couple of months. Per the statewide instructions, you should get a COVID-19 test if you develop any of the symptoms of COVID-19, even if they are mild, or if you are a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

However, some cities may have their own advice on the matter (for example, the Somerville Board of Health strongly urges all residents to be tested, per city communications), so you should check your town’s website or Facebook page for the most accurate information.

Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after you’ve been exposed to the virus, and they include:

  • Fever, chills, shaking chills
  • Cough, shortness of breath, lowered oxygen saturation
  • Fatigue, sore throat, headache, body aches
  • Loss of sense of taste or smell
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Rash, inflammatory conditions such as “COVID toes”
  • And in elderly, chronically ill, or debilitated individuals, subtle alterations in mental status or blood glucose control

The list of what classifies you as a “close contact” of someone with COVID is somewhat complicated, but generally can be classified as spending at least 10 minutes within six feet of someone who tested positive. But if you’re trying to calculate your risk more specifically, this is the criteria:

  • You were within six feet for at least 10-15 minutes of a person who tested COVID-positive and was symptomatic
  • You were within six feet for at least 10-15 minutes of a COVID-positive person during the 48 hours before their symptoms onset
  • You were within six feet for 10-15 minutes of someone who tested positive 48 hours or less later
  • You were within six feet for 10-15 minutes of a person sometime in the 10 days after they tested COVID-positive

What if I don’t fit these criteria, but I want to get tested anyway?

The requirements for getting tested have gradually relaxed, and you no longer need to be symptomatic to get a test. However, the criteria vary depending on your city (see the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville breakdown below) and your testing site, so be sure to call the testing site you plan to visit to confirm its requirements.

What is the coronavirus test like?

The most common version of the test is a nasal swab, involving a clinician inserting a long cotton swab into your nasal passage or your nasal passage and throat.  At some sites, you will receive instructions and perform the nasal swab test on yourself. Your sample will then be sent to a lab, and you will receive your results in a few days.

Some sites offer a saliva test instead of a swab, requiring you to spit in a cup rather than submit to a swab. However, these tests are not yet as widely available in Massachusetts as the nasal swab test.

Rapid testing, or a nasal swab test for which you receive your results in as little as 15 minutes, is available at a handful of locations across the state; however, these tests sometimes come with a higher fee. See the specifics in the below Cambridge and Somerville sections for more details on the rapid test.

Antibody testing, which is a blood test that identifies whether your blood contains antibodies for coronavirus, is available at certain testing sites in Massachusetts as well. However, because the antibody test doesn’t show a positive result until after a person with COVID improves, the test is not being used to diagnose cases of COVID at this time.

If you’d like to know which versions of the test are available at your testing site, it’s best to call before you go—information is changing rapidly, and calling will always give you the most up-to-date information.

How soon after potential COVID exposure can I get a test?

The chances that a test will give you a false negative—or, say you’re not infected when you actually are—depends upon when over the course of your infection you get tested, per information from Harvard Medical School. The following are some situations that are known to provide false negative test results:

  • 100% of the time on the day you are exposed to the virus, due to how few viral particles there are in your nose or saliva
  • About 40% of the time if you are tested four days after exposure to the virus
  • About 20% of the time if you develop symptoms and are tested three days after those symptoms started

It’s time for me to get tested. What do I do first?

If you’re ready to get tested, you should start by calling your healthcare provider—while you’re not required to go through your doctor to get tested, making contact with your provider is still encouraged as they can help direct you to free testing sites near you or sites that will take your insurance. If you do not have a healthcare provider, you can use Buoy Health, a free online symptom-checker, to assess your symptoms and connect with free telehealth services if necessary.

Then, it’s time to find a testing site and schedule your test. Read on for more details about how to do that in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville specifically.

Trying to get a test outside the Boston area? Visit the Massachusetts COVID-19 Test Site Locator for a map of testing sites across the state. You can also try the following options:

Boston

Who can get a test?

Tests are available for anyone in Boston, symptomatic or asymptomatic.

Can I get tested for free?

Per boston.gov, testing is free at all of Boston’s community health centers regardless of insurance or immigration status, and will not affect “public charge” rule determinations. Testing is also free and insurance is not required at the city’s mobile and pop-up testing sites.

Where should I go?

Information regarding testing sites changes rapidly. For the most up to date information, be sure to call your testing site before you go.

Check boston.gov for the mobile and pop-up testing site schedule, which currently includes several sites across Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Allston. There’s also a list of community health centers in neighborhoods across the city offering testing. The city additionally has a map displaying over 20 more sites across Boston.

Cambridge

Who can get a test?

Any Cambridge resident—most testing sites for Cambridge residents, including the Cambridge Health Alliance drive-through and the Cambridge Public Health Department’s mobile testing sites, are providing tests to any residents who request them, regardless of whether or not you are expressing symptoms.

Can I get tested for free?

At the Cambridge Health Alliance drive-through site in Somerville and the CPHD’s mobile testing site, yes. The CPHD also does not require identification or a social security number.

The Carewell Urgent Care in Inman Square is also offering tests; however, the traditional COVID-19 test is only free if you have insurance and are either a healthcare worker or a symptomatic person. If you want to get tested at Carewell but are asymptomatic, the test costs $160. Carewell also offers the antibody test, to detect if you have previous exposure to COVID, and a “rapid” COVID test, for which you can receive results in 15 minutes, but neither are free.

Where should I go?

Information regarding testing sites changes rapidly. For the most up to date information, be sure to call your testing site before you go.

For more details about the mobile testing sites available around Cambridge, visit the City of Cambridge’s testing page. Also see: the statewide COVID-19 test site locator.

Somerville

Who can get a test?

Per the city of Somerville website, COVID-19 tests are available to all Somerville residents, regardless of health insurance or immigration status.

Can I get tested for free?

Yes, all Somerville residents can be tested for free at the city’s mobile testing unit and at the Cambridge Health Alliance drive-through site in Somerville.

The Somerville Carewell Urgent Care is also offering tests; however, the traditional COVID-19 test is only free if you have insurance and are either a healthcare worker or a symptomatic person. If you want to get tested at Carewell but are asymptomatic, the test costs $160. Carewell also offers the antibody test, to detect if you have previous exposure to COVID, and a “rapid” COVID test, for which you can receive results in 15 minutes, but neither are free.

Where should I go?

Information regarding testing sites changes rapidly. For the most up to date information, be sure to call your testing site before you go.

See Somerville’s mobile testing unit’s schedule, and sign up for an appointment (required), here. Also see: the statewide COVID-19 test site locator.