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Navigating Covid-19 testing still a headache with breakthrough infections on the rise

David Sheckel, 24, who is positive for Covid-19, enjoys breakfast and a book on the deck of his apartment in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. Photo by Frank Festa

Earlier this week, my roommate tested positive for Covid-19. Being fully vaccinated myself and having already had Covid-19 around New Years, I figured I was in the clear, well positioned to dodge a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated.’ Yet with breakthrough infections on the rise, I found myself in a situation graduate students across the city might soon find themselves in as well: Fully vaccinated, living off campus, and forced to cohabitate with someone who is positive for Covid-19.

As the university notes, graduate housing is ‘extremely limited,’ which means that the vast majority of NYU’S 25,000 graduate students live somewhere in the five boroughs of the city or over the bridge in Hoboken or Jersey City. No testing is provided by the university on the weekends, and students who wish to get tested and do not live in NYU administered housing (which offers more readily available testing options) must schedule a test in advance. This makes testing and navigating exposure more difficult for graduate students than advertised.

My roomate, David Sheckel, 24, got tested ‘more than 50 times’ by his own estimation while completing his Masters in Public Policy at Northeastern University in Boston, where he lived before moving to Brooklyn. Half a hundred negative results later, he began to feel like he’d never contract Covid-19 – especially after reaching full-vaccination status near the end of April. 

“Actually getting a positive one, I didn’t process it at first,” he said, having only gotten tested in the first place as a courtesy before heading in for the first day of a new job. “I was a little congested, but kinda figured it was my seasonal allergies. It’s kind of shocking.”

David, who is not a student at NYU, had been keeping a low profile for the most part. He tries to avoid large gatherings and crowded areas, congregating mostly with small groups of friends. He says that upwards of 10 people he potentially exposed all tested negative. 

“I guess it’s proof the vaccine is doing its job,” he said. “But it’s also proof that breakthrough infections happen.”

Data collected by the New York Times suggests that fully vaccinated people have a one in 5,000 chance of contracting the virus – half as likely if you live in an area with low transmission. As of September 15th, 68% of New York City’s adults 18 and older have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to NYC Health Department data. Those figures for the university are more impressive, thanks to NYU’s back to school vaccine mandate: 99% of students, 98% of faculty, and 96% of employees are fully vaccinated. 

Even in an environment where inoculation is high, evidence of breakthrough infections is beginning to emerge. 

NYU releases testing data on a weekly basis, which can be found buried on the university’s website four clicks from the homepage. Last week (September 6-12), NYU returned 48 positive PCR tests out of 3,457 PCR conducted on campus, for a reported positivity rate of 1.36%. The total number of cases for the same time period was 157, which includes cases reported by students, faculty and employees from testing conducted off campus. NYU’s Covid Response and Prevention team could not be reached for comment. 

All publicly available data for the first two weeks of the semester shows a cumulative total of 249 reported positive cases. 

Living about four miles from campus in Brooklyn, I found myself not wanting to travel via public transportation to NYU’s BioReference testing site located on campus at 18 Cooper Square out of an abundance of caution. Once David notified me of being infected, we read articles from the Cleveland Clinic and Bustle about how to best proceed, in addition to consulting the ACCESS NYC covid hotline. NYU advised me that as long as I was vaccinated and wasn’t showing symptoms that quarantining wasn’t necessary. 

David and I committed to staying in our respective rooms and double masking everytime we needed to use the common areas like the kitchen or the bathroom, each of us waiting for the other to leave before taking our turn and being sure to thoroughly disinfect with Lysol wipes afterwards. Although our apartment fits the standard New York City shoebox stereotype, it’s got enough doors and a deck to make staying out of each other’s way relatively easy. 

Getting tested, on the other hand, wasn’t as straightforward. 

“Google Maps has a feature to find covid testing near you, but I don’t think that’s a very good resource,” said David about our search for local testing. The only options within a mile radius of our apartment were urgent care centers and private clinics. Several of these options featured reviews lamenting how disorganized the process was and how it took days for results on tests that purportedly are ready in less than thirty minutes. 

“The city’s website offers a great resource to find covid testing near you, with an option to search for testing by zip code,” said David. “If I end up getting tested again, I’ll probably go to one of the city’s mobile units, even though there aren’t any that are super convenient for us here.”

I ended up getting both a rapid antigen and PCR test at an urgent care center in Bushwick. Thankfully, both came back negative. 

While the PCR test was covered under my university-provided insurance, the rapid antigen test ran me $100. I called five testing options that purported to offer free rapid antigen testing near me but either never made it off hold or was told to plan to come first thing the following morning, when they’d be less busy. Two separate Walgreens within walking distance told me they were no longer conducting rapid antigen testing, and they were also sold out of the take home versions of these tests. 

While rapid testing is thought to be less reliable than PCR testing, it’s almost a necessity when it comes to informing classmates and professors about your status while they figure out how to proceed themselves. Real time results enable real time decisions. And without a clear playbook for graduate students, those decisions are all the more complicated.