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Long lines for COVID-19 tests, but negative results don't put you in the clear

People line up to get tested for COVID-19

People line up to get tested for COVID-19 at CityMD in Lake Grove on Friday. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Urgent care centers across Long Island are being inundated with people seeking rapid-result COVID-19 tests before the Thanksgiving holiday, often leading to long lines and waits in the cold.

But health experts worry a negative result may give people a false sense of security during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It would be a terrible mistake if people said, 'I got a negative test, so I’m free to do what I want,' " said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital.

Glatt said people could still be incubating COVID-19 and be contagious in the near future.

The demand for tests also comes during a time when the rising number of COVID-19 positives has resulted in parts of Long Island being designated microclusters by the state. Depending on the level of spread, areas designated as microclusters can face restrictions such as the closure of nonessential businesses and a ban on public gatherings.

Dr. Bonnie Simmons, chair of urgent care at ProHEALTH, which has urgent care and primary care centers on Long Island and in New York City, said the lines of walk-in patients are "constant," even though people also can make appointments online.

"Our patients are saying one of three things — either they are going somewhere, even if it's local, and they are very worried about infecting their loved ones," Simmons said. "Or we hear the whole family has made a deal that everybody gets tested."

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She said the third group of patients are those who have been exposed to a friend or family member who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Simmons said medical personnel at ProHEALTH are careful to make sure patients who receive a negative result understand they are not completely in the clear.

"We tell everyone it looks as if they are not shedding a detectable coronavirus right now, but that level could be going up," she said. "In a day or two, you could be shedding coronavirus and be contagious, so everyone has to wear a mask."

At the ProHEALTH center in Jericho on Tuesday afternoon, there was a steady stream of people looking for COVID-19 tests, including Holly Carr of Locust Valley.

Carr, 57, said she is tested frequently for COVID-19 because her father is battling cancer.

"We had planned to go see him for Thanksgiving, just my husband and myself, so just to make sure I am OK, I thought I had better get one more test," Carr said.

Alisha Saluja, an 18-year-old college student from Syosset, said she was tested for COVID-19 five days ago when she returned home from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

It came back negative, so Saluja decided to be tested for antibodies.

"I think I had it," Saluja said, of an illness she had several months ago. "I had all the symptoms."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who was on Long Island on Tuesday for a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, said people tend to go to certain sites and wait in line even though there are other places to get tested. He also said someone can have the virus for up to seven days without getting a positive test result.

"Get a test. It’s better than not," Cuomo said. "But it’s not foolproof."

With Robert Brodsky

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