Free COVID testing is available across the country for children and adults. Here's where you can get your kid tested for COVID-19.
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Credit: Images By Tang Ming Tung, Creative #: 1361590313

While some parents are asking whether their child should be tested for COVID-19, others want to know how to make it happen. Where can kids go for free and easy COVID-19 tests? The good news is there are numerous sites available across the country offering PCR (or polymerase chain reaction) tests.

PCR tests are considered the "gold standard" of COVID-19 tests, says Jeffrey S. Dlott, M.D., MS, senior medical director, Diagnostic Services at Quest Diagnostics. These "molecular" tests, which are often taken as a nasal swab, look for small amounts of viral RNA to diagnosis coronavirus infection. They're typically given at pharmacies, testing centers, doctor's offices, and other locations. Your specimen is sent to a lab for processing, and results usually take at least 24 hours.

Note that your child can also take rapid at-home COVID tests, which give results in about 15 minutes. These antigen tests search for virus proteins in the body. They're extremely convenient for parents, but they're less sensitive than PCR tests. Indeed, a December 2021 study showed that at-home tests aren't very effective at detecting the Omicron variant—especially in asymptomatic individuals and those with low viral loads. That's why many families choose PCR testing instead.

So where can you get your child tested for COVID-19 with a PCR test? From pharmacies and retailers to testing centers and doctor's offices, here is a comprehensive list of where your family can secure appointment or walk-in COVID-19 tests.

Pharmacies and Retailers Offering Free COVID-19 Tests for Kids

Pharmacies across the country offer free COVID-19 testing for kids. One example is Walgreens, which has free, contactless COVID-19 testing for patients aged 3 and up at select locations. "As more health departments and school administrators continue efforts to bring students back to classrooms in a safe and thoughtful manner, and to help parents and guardians seeking access to testing when warranted for their children, we're proud to be a community testing resource for individuals and families—including those age 3 and over," said Rick Gates, senior vice president of pharmacy at Walgreens.

All caregivers need to do to get their child tested is head to the Walgreen COVID-19 testing website, complete a quick screening, and schedule an appointment for the no-cost, contactless test. Caregivers must also be present with their minor at the testing site—Walgreens operates more than 600 sites across the country, as well as ones in Puerto Rico. The website can help you locate a site in your area.

Other pharmacy chains, as well as local independent pharmacies, offer COVID-19 testing as well. Some retailers do as well. For example, Albertsons (the company which owns Safeway, Market Street, and Acme, to name a few) offers "proctored PCR-equivalent COVID-19 tests to asymptomatic patients with results in approximately 20 minutes." These tests are available to anyone age 2 and up. An appointment is also necessary, and the test costs $99 out-of-pocket.

Contact specific pharmacies and retailers to learn if they offer COVID-19 testing for kids.

Other Places Where Children Can Be Tested

There are some other options for kids to get tested, too. "One of the best places to get a nasal swab PCR test to know if your child has a COVID-19 infection is your pediatrician's office," says Rashmi Jain, M.D., a pediatrician and founder of BabiesMD.com, a virtual Pediatric Urgent Care. "A pediatric urgent care center is another good choice, as is an emergency room, if your child is sick enough to go to the emergency room."

Generally, you should call the doctor's office or urgent care center before bringing in a child for COVID-19 testing. They might have specific rules for individuals potentially infected with the virus, to avoid transmitting it to other people.

Many cities and states also offer testing pop-up testing locations. In New York City, for example, there are dozens of mobile testing sites. These vans service children aged 2 and up. For more information about testing sites in your city and state, visit the United States Department of Health and Human Services website.

What to Know Before Getting a PCR Test

PCR tests are usually pretty accurate; they can pick up even low levels of viral RNA. Even so, you want to avoid testing too early or too late. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends testing immediately if you develop COVID symptoms. If you've had exposure but no symptoms, test at least five days after exposure, and follow recommended quarantine guidance in the meantime.

The CDC also says that people shouldn't use PCR tests within 90 days of getting and recovering from the virus (unless you develop new symptoms). For more testing guidance, check out the CDC guidelines here.

It's also important to note that PCR testing is usually free with many health insurance plans. If you don't have insurance, some health centers and select pharmacies also provide free tests, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Check out the HHS website to find a testing location near you.