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Where to get free COVID-19 test if you have no symptoms

Gov. Kemp encouraged all Georgians to get tested for the coronavirus, but when our chief investigator tried, he ran into roadblocks.

ATLANTA — Georgia has ramped up testing for the coronavirus since Gov. Brian Kemp opened up free testing to all residents.

The state is, “encouraging all Georgians, even if they’re not experiencing symptoms, to schedule an appointment with their healthcare provider, local health department, or get a screening through the AU Health ExpressCare app,” Kemp said at a May 13 news conference.

Infectious disease experts have discovered that the majority of COVID-19 infections are mild or symptom free, but even people without symptoms can be contagious. To fully understand how and where the virus is spreading, public health officials need to test a wider range of the population, not just those self-reporting with symptoms.

The App

The state is using a smartphone app to screen residents for testing. The ExpressCare app is run by Augusta Health, a teaching hospital that is part of Augusta University, Georgia’s state health sciences college.

The app asks if you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, cough, and loss of taste or smell. The symptom answer is required, even though the governor said anyone can get a test with or without symptoms.

11Alive's Brendan Keefe decided to go through the process.

He answered no, and wrote the reason for getting tested was, “Governor said all Georgians should get tested.”

RELATED: App from Augusta University offers streamlined COVID-19 testing

Credit: WXIA

After a few moments, he was connected to a video visit with a nurse practitioner with Augusta Health.

Her first question was whether he had symptoms.

“No,” he answered. “I have no conditions at all, just wanted to get the test since the governor had mentioned that everyone should get tested."

“Yes, our governor recommended it,” the nurse practitioner said. “So here’s the thing I want you to understand, since you don’t have symptoms and you are in a very low risk category for having complications if you get infected…CDC guidelines do not recommend you to get a test, but if you insist, I can register for you but that comes with a cost for the COVID-19 test.”

Both federal and state officials said COVID-19 teasing was free.

So Keefe asked, “how much is it?”

The nurse practitioner answered, “$300 something, is what I heard.”

She said he could check if his insurance would cover it, but if he wanted to go through with testing without having any symptoms, he would be responsible for the cost.

The nurse practitioner said, instead of a test, “practicing social distancing, washing your hands, those kind of things would be very effective. Cost effective.”

11Alive contacted the governor’s office, and played the recording of the state’s nurse practitioner saying there would be a $300 charge. A spokesman for the governor said that’s not correct, and asked Augusta Health to respond to us directly.

Augusta Health issued a statement saying, “we regret that a provider misunderstood established protocol and discussed potential test costs with a patient even though testing is free of charge. We have remedied the situation by reemphasizing that COVID-19 testing is available at no cost to patients," wrote a spokesperson. 

You can read their full statement at the bottom of this story. 

RELATED: The financial toll of Covid-19: Beating the virus comes at a cost

Free Government Testing at CVS

We also tried to get a free diagnostic test from the CVS testing site at Georgia Tech.

The federally-funded testing is administered by CVS, but it’s done in cooperation with the Georgia Department of Public Health. The testing is by appointment only, which requires a screening online.

11Alive's Brendan Keefe tried three times to register for the free test using CVS’s Minute Clinic screening page on the web.

In all three of my attempts after the governor encouraged all Georgians to get tested, it asked for symptoms or other qualifying information such as being a healthcare worker.

Each time he got the same answer: “You do not qualify for testing at this time.”

Remember, asymptomatic carriers of the virus can also be contagious, but the government-backed testing at CVS is still requiring symptoms or other prerequisites for a test.

RELATED: Georgia releases list of 48 coronavirus testing sites across state

Credit: WXIA

County Health Departments

The governor mentioned going to your healthcare provider or contacting your local health department to schedule a test.

For many Georgians, a doctor’s visit is not free. Scheduling an appointment with a doctor to order a test when you have no symptoms could cost time and money, though some 11Alive viewers have reported their doctors have ordered tests over the phone at no charge.

Instead of one COVID-19 hotline for health departments in the state, the Georgia Department of Public Health is directing residents to call one of 44 separate numbers depending on where they live.

Keefe called the Fulton County Health Department COVID hotline, and after two minutes on hold with a recording, he was connected to a live human.

He told Fulton County he had no symptoms, and the hotline worker immediately scheduled a free COVID test for the next day in Alpharetta.

Testing Sites

When Keefe went to the testing site in Alpharetta, the parking lot was nearly empty. 

Most state and county drive-up testing sites require reservations in advance, though there have been some walk-up testing sites for COVID-19.

A series of Georgia National Guard soldiers checked the reservation number and ID at three different checkpoints leading up to the testing tent. Keefe stayed in the car the whole time.

The nasal swab was over in five seconds. Results, however, will take days.

One National Guard soldier said, “you should receive a phone call within four to ten business days” after the test.

A nurse closer to the testing station said, “results are coming back in about five days.”

The CVS testing at Georgia Tech uses the Abbott Labs ID Now system that gives results in minutes, though the accuracy of the test has come into question with a 15 percent false-negative rate, as we first reported.

RELATED: 'Positive then negative, four hours apart': Accuracy of COVID-19 testing in question

The state testing is taking up to ten days, and given that it took us a few days to schedule a test, and people with symptoms may not develop them until 14 days into the infection, reporting of diagnostic test results in Georgia may lag weeks beyond the time an individual contracted the virus.

Retail Antibody Testing

Keefe was able to get an antibody test, with results in 24 hours, no questions asked, but for a price.

Antibody tests use either a blood draw or a finger prick to check for the antibodies your immune system produces to fight the disease. A positive result means you have been infected previously, but it doesn’t test whether you are currently infected with the virus.

Quest Diagnostics is offering retail antibody testing nationwide with no prerequisites other than you can’t be sick, and you must be willing to pay $129 out of pocket ($119 plus fees).

Because this is done without a doctor’s order, and without symptoms, most insurance plans won’t reimburse you for the retail test.

Keefe booked the antibody test online with Quest and picked a time slot just an hour later at a site.

Quest draws a vial of blood from the arm. The whole visit took seven minutes, and results were available online within 24 hours.

Quest reports it has processed 975,000 antibody tests in the U.S. as of May 18.

Credit: WXIA

Augusta Health’s Full Statement:

"We regret that a provider misunderstood established protocol and discussed potential test costs with a patient even though testing is free of charge. We have remedied the situation by reemphasizing that COVID-19 testing is available at no cost to patients by calling 706-721-1852 or by visiting one of Augusta University Health’s drive-thru locations.

Those wanting to know if they need a test or to discuss their symptoms with a provider free of charge are encouraged to download AU Health ExpressCare app.

COVID-19 testing is available to all Georgians who wish to be tested and Augusta University is working in partnership with the Georgia National Guard to augment testing available through the Department of Public Health. To date, AU Health and the National Guard have tested more than 20,000 people through its drive-thru locations and strike teams.”

11Alive is focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus.  We want to keep you informed about the latest developments while ensuring that we deliver confirmed, factual information.  

We will track the most important coronavirus elements relating to Georgia on this page. Refresh often for new information. 

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