Reported COVID-19 cases are on the rise in New York City this month, and anyone who’s had one too many friends skip out on a holiday party because they’re sick may be wondering where to get tested and vaccinated this season.
Since the federal state of emergency around the coronavirus ended in May, things have changed somewhat, but free tests and shots are still widely available – along with immunizations against the flu and RSV, which are also going around.
In a pre-Christmas message, Dr. James McDonald, the state’s health commissioner, said New Yorkers are fortunate that, for the first time, “we have three safe and effective vaccines that can provide protection” against these viruses.
He added, “If you are experiencing symptoms of illness, such as fever, cough, sore throat or runny nose, consider staying home or wearing a mask to avoid spreading that illness to your loved ones.”
New York City data on the number of COVID cases became less reliable amid a decline in in-person testing for the virus. But the trend lines show both a rise in reported cases this month as well as an increase in hospitalizations, which mirror national data tracked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s driving the latest COVID-19 surge?
Nationally, the latest surge in the coronavirus is being driven by a new variant, JN.1, which was first detected in September and now accounts for an estimated 44% of cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the Northeast, that figure is higher, with JN.1 accounting for an estimated 57% of cases.
The JN.1 variant appears to be either more transmissible or better at evading immunity than other strains going around, but there’s no evidence that it poses a greater risk to public health, the CDC said in an update last week.
JN.1 is structurally similar to other recent strains and the latest COVID vaccine should still work well in providing protection against the variant, the CDC added.
Where to get free COVID tests
With a variety of respiratory illnesses going around, it can be hard to tell whether COVID is really the culprit for that fever or cough without a test.
Following the end of the federal emergency around COVID-19 in May, health insurers are no longer required to provide members with free COVID tests, so coverage may vary.
But the Biden administration renewed a program in late November allowing each household to order free home test kits via USPS. You can get four free tests by filling out this form online.
New York City also distributes free at-home tests at sites located throughout the five boroughs.
At home-tests may be usable past the expiration dates marked on the box. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of extended expiration dates and guidance on using various home tests.
Who should get vaccinated against COVID, the flu and RSV?
So far, COVID vaccine uptake has been slow this season. Only about 18% of adults have gotten the most recent version of the COVID vaccine since it was approved by the FDA in September, the CDC reported on Dec. 9. People 75 and older have been the most likely to get vaccinated.
Earlier this month, the CDC advised health care providers that there was an “urgent need” to boost vaccination rates against COVID, the flu and RSV, noting that the shots can reduce the risk of severe illness or hospitalization.
The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months receive this year’s flu vaccine as well as the updated COVID vaccine.
The RSV vaccine is currently only recommended for older adults, pregnant people and infants. The CDC recommends that anyone over 60 speak with their doctor about whether to get vaccinated against RSV.
How to get vaccinated against COVID, the flu and RSV
It’s often possible to bang out multiple vaccines at once — although one study found that getting the flu and COVID vaccines at the same time increased the chances of temporary side effects such as headaches and fatigue. Major pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens offer the COVID, flu and RSV vaccines, as do many smaller pharmacies and health care providers.
New York City has a searchable list of pharmacy locations and clinics where COVID and flu shots are available — although it may be wise to call ahead. The federal government also has a searchable list at vaccines.gov. New Jersey lists community vaccination events at covid19.nj.gov.
In most cases, health plans are required to cover all three of these vaccines at no cost to members as part of routine preventive care.
The federal Bridge Access Program is designed to help anyone who is uninsured get the updated COVID vaccine for free. But New Yorkers may have to remind pharmacies about the program. Gothamist reported in September that some pharmacies were charging people for vaccines that were supposed to be free.
When to stay home from school
The New York City Department of Education says if a public school child tests positive for COVID-19, they should stay home for at least five days from when their symptoms first started. The Department also suggests children with medical conditions that put them at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 wear masks in crowded indoor spaces, and recommends masks for anyone who has recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
The Department of Education also recommends children get vaccinated for COVID and the flu and generally stay home when they’re sick.