Want A Free COVID Test? Now You Can Get One In LA County

A sign guides drivers to the entrance of a drive through COVID-19 test site in Crenshaw. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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As coronavirus infections continue to climb, L.A. County health officials have expanded access to free COVID testing. We spoke with Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the county's Department of Health Services, about the new testing strategy and why it's happening now.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

L.A. County and the state have expanded the tiered testing system that was initially limited to people who have symptoms or contact with a known case or who are essential workers. Can you explain who can now sign up for these free tests in the county?

Anyone who has other reasons to believe that they might have been exposed to someone with COVID. Either they were out at a large gathering or they were around someone that they suspected might have COVID even though they don't have documentation of that, they also can now sign up for a slot in any of the county-operated test sites, as well as the city-operated test sites and the county's website includes over 150 different community-based testing sites that can people can sign up to get a test.

How long will free COVID tests be available to everyone?

We have no plans to change the accessibility of testing within the county.

In the spring some L.A. residents who were tested at county sites waited days, sometimes weeks, for their COVID test results. Now that you've broadened the access to the county tests, do you think the labs can keep up?

This is one of the things that has really improved over the course of the last six months. Certainly, when the pandemic started, there was both an absolute shortage of tests relative to the demand for the tests. But also the turnaround times were quite long. And that was also related to testing supply shortages. But now that situation is much improved. Patients are getting their results often in 24 hours, and certainly in less than 36 hours. And anyone where it's taking longer than that there is a website and phone numbers that you can call on the county website to troubleshoot what the specific issue is.

When you sign up for a COVID test appointment on the county's website it asks for your health insurance information — why is that?

While we're not billing patients for the cost of a COVID test, we are working to bill patient's insurance, if they have insurance. Patients are asked when they sign up for an appointment slot to provide insurance information if they are covered so that we can see reimbursement from those plans. Those [health insurance] plans within California, within the United States, have an obligation to pay for COVID testing. And being able to claim reimbursement for the cost of those tests helps stretch the public sector offered resources further. People without health insurance can also get a free COVID test.

The convergence of COVID and flu season has created a daunting prospect for hospitals. Many health experts are warning it poses a double threat that could severely strain our health systems and leave patients without hospital care. How is L.A. County's hospital capacity right now?

We are in a good place right now with overall hospital capacity. So the number of COVID patients who are hospitalized in L.A. County hospitals has remained relatively stable for the last several weeks. It's running around 700 patients or so. And this is really much lower than we saw in July when the number was above 2,000.

So the most important things people can do are really a few things. First, it's important to keep practicing those basic protective public health measures that people have heard a lot about — wearing the face-coverings, limiting social gatherings, washing your hands, avoiding intermingling among people outside of your household. The flu shot really is quite protective against the flu generally, and it reduces the risk that someone will have the flu or have coinfection with both the flu and COVID and obviously we don't know yet what it looks like for people to be co-infected with both.