Philly’s coronavirus response

You can now get 15-minute coronavirus test results in Philly: Here’s what to know

Rapid antigen tests can provide a quick answer for COVID infections — but false negatives are an issue.

A health care worker runs a rapid coronavirus test at a site in Houston

A health care worker runs a rapid coronavirus test at a site in Houston

Jill Hunter / AP Photo
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

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Philadelphians can now get screened for coronavirus and have results returned within 15 minutes — but experts say if you want to be sure about the diagnosis, you’ll need to get a second opinion.

Vybe is rolling out rapid antigen testing at all 10 of its Philly-area urgent care locations. The fast new test is different from the most-commonly used type, which is known as a PCR test.

Speed is of the essence in containing pandemic spread. Over the past few months, some labs have seen widespread delays in getting results back to patients. Some Philly sites took up to two weeks to let people know whether they had tested positive — aka the entirety of the time you’re recommended to quarantine if you do catch the virus.

Things have gotten better recently, even for the overburdened national labs. According to Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, the average turnaround time for results in Philly is around one and a half days. But the potential to learn results in just a quarter of an hour may be enticing to many.

“This rapid test is intended for asymptomatic patients and is available in limited quantities only by appointment at all Vybe locations,” the company’s announcement reads.

Important notes: Insurance doesn’t cover the 15-minute testing option — so you’ll have to pay out of pocket ($75 at Vybe). That’s largely because antigen testing so far hasn’t proven itself accurate enough. The unreliability is why Philly’s Health Department won’t use it at any of its public testing sites.

“I’m still worried about false negatives,” Farley said. “There may be a role for this. I’m not saying [people] shouldn’t do it, but I think they need to be very careful.”

What is the test?

The new rapid test used at Vybe is called the Sofia SARS Antigen FIA. Similar to standard PCR tests, it’s administered via nasal swab (not one that digs into the back of your throat), then delivers results within 15 minutes.

This kind of testing searches for proteins made by the virus (aka “antigens”) in your nose and throat secretions. It’s the same kind of technology your doctor would use to test you for strep throat.

How is it different from the ‘regular’ PCR test?

The coronavirus diagnostic tests that have become standard, also known as PCR tests, don’t search for proteins made by the virus — they search for the virus’s genetic material itself. Because of this, they’re able to tell if you have an active infection.

Can I trust rapid antigen testing?

There are several concerns about the accuracy of antigen tests out there (the Sofia brand used at Vybe is one of several available).

Compared to the PCR method, the antigen screens are not as sensitive, meaning they don’t detect viral presence as well. The FDA says you can mostly trust the rapid tests when they return positive results, but the negative results are more questionable. They’ll need to be confirmed with a second, more reliable form of testing, Health Commissioner Farley confirmed.

Basically, if your rapid test says you’re negative, you’ll want to get a second opinion.

When Pennsylvania receives positives from rapid tests, they’re classified as “probable” cases until a PCR test confirms the results.

Philadelphia’s Health Department is waiting for a more trustworthy version to implement them citywide.

“We’re still awaiting a rapid test that has a high degree of accuracy, in which case we’d be very enthusiastic about rolling it out,” Farley said. “But right now, we haven’t seen one.”

Has rapid coronavirus testing been available in Philly before?

Not yet. Back in May, Philly’s Health Department considered outfitting 15 health centers with rapid testing from the company Abbott. They weren’t exactly the same as the antigen testing now available at Vybe — they were more like a quick version of the standard PCR tests.

But Farley and his team determined those were also not accurate enough for widespread use.

“We did get rapid results, but we also had a lot of false negative results,” Farley explained. “It got to the point that we didn’t feel it was worth it. We essentially would have to repeat the [tests] for almost everybody.”

Where can I get it? When?

If you’re still interested despite the caveats, you can currently snag an antigen test at any of Vybe’s 10 Philly-area locations. You’ll need to make an appointment first. For now, the company is only offering this test to people who are asymptomatic.

Is anywhere else in Philly offering something similar?

Doesn’t look like it. Vybe seems to be the only testing site — public or private — running antigen tests in the city right now.

How much will it cost me?

Again, since this type of test isn’t covered by insurance, the fee will be relatively steep. At Vybe, it’ll cost you $75 to be screened for coronavirus antigens.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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