Katie Honan and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
Mayor Bill de Blasio promised “more and more” COVID testing sites Sunday as spread of the Omicron variant fueled demand and spotlighted the city’s pre-surge closing of 20 brick-and-mortar testing centers.
Eight additional fixed-location testing centers — three of them in Brooklyn — are slated to be up and running by Tuesday, pushing the number to “over 30,” with 93 mobile sites, said Dr. Ted Long, head of the city’s Test and Trace operation.
The news came three days after THE CITY reported that the number of city-operated fixed testing centers listed dropped dramatically in the middle of November from 54 to 34, falling to 31 by this past Wednesday.
The city is in “kind of a rolling thunder situation,” de Blasio said during a rare Sunday news conference that included a cameo by Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who expressed “100% agreement” with City Hall’s approach to handling the infection jump.
On Friday and Saturday, the state hit consecutive records of daily reports of positive cases, which de Blasio said could be contained to a “fast and temporary phenomenon” if all New Yorkers get fully vaccinated — including booster shots.
The combination of the spread of Omicron and other variants, along with people planning to travel for the holidays, spurred long lines outside of testing sites across the city, from pharmacies to urgent care centers to pop-up tents to city Health + Hospital facilities.
Amid the growing frustration of pandemic-weary New Yorkers queuing up in the cold, de Blasio and city health officials pledged more mobile and pop-up testing would be on tap, along with the 500,000 free at-home testing kits the mayor promised Thursday. Most pharmacies around the city were out of the do-it-yourself kits, adding New Yorkers’ ire.
‘A Brand-New Reality’
De Blasio said his administration is “working right now with the federal government on a major resupply of home tests.”
The mostly federal funding for Test & Trace plunged for the fiscal year beginning in July 2021 from past levels — down to $539 million from $1.2 billion in the previous budget cycle, THE CITY previously reported.
Still, de Blasio said the site closures had nothing to do with funding cuts.
“No, it’s not a budget question. It’s just about getting the testing capacity, getting the testing kits, getting the personnel what they need, setting up sites,” he said.
“This is a brand-new reality, but the good news is the city has been through so many versions of COVID challenges before that we can adjust rapidly, and what we’ll do starting tomorrow is give a clearer picture of what we anticipate over the next week and more in terms of additional testing coming online,” he added.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden was slated Tuesday to make a national address outlining the White House’s plan to fight Omicron, NBC News reported on Saturday.
“Building off his Winter Plan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Twitter, the president “will announce new steps the administration is taking to help communities in need of assistance, while also issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated.”
We are prepared for the rising case levels, and @POTUS will detail how we will respond to this challenge. He will remind Americans that they can protect themselves from severe illness from COVID-19 by getting vaccinated and getting their booster shot when they are eligible.— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) December 18, 2021
Earlier this month, Biden said that plan “doesn’t include shutdowns or lockdowns but widespread vaccinations and boosters and testing and a lot more.”
De Blasio on Sunday defended closing of the testing centers, even as Omicron became known, saying that testing demand had seen “huge decline” with the share of positive tests around 2%. But the positivity rate has more than tripled since, surpassing 7%.
The mayor and his team seemed taken aback by reporters’ questions citing long lines — including a New York Times journalist’s account of city-contracted private operators of mobile units being understaffed, keeping shortened hours and closing without warning for lunch breaks.
“It’s really helpful to let us know,” Long said.
De Blasio promised there soon would be enough facilities to handle the testing demand: “We’re going to be making more and more testing available all over the five boroughs.”
‘Ready to Fight’
The afternoon news conference served as a part pep rally and part reminder that all need to pitch in to help fight the latest battle in a pandemic that’s taken the lives of more than 35,000 New Yorkers in the last 21 months.
De Blasio, Long and Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi urged the public to wear high-quality masks in indoor public settings and to get fully vaccinated. They also urged medically vulnerable people and those over 65 to avoid unnecessary public outings.
“Plan your holidays around your most vulnerable family member,” Chokshi said, who called Omicron the “fastest, fittest and most formidable” COVID variant yet.
Meanwhile, there were signs of Omicron’s impact on some of the city’s signature attractions: “Saturday Night Live” ran a barebones show over the weekend, without a studio audience and most of its cast.
And Broadway took a hit, with performances of “Jagged Little Pill,” “Hamilton,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and others cancelled over the weekend. The producers of Radio City Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular” announced the end of this year’s run on Friday.
The mayor said there’s no reason to panic, given that hospitalizations have not been rising in proportion with the positivity rates — partly a function, he said, of vaccinations making for less severe illnesses.
And while de Blasio said a decision hadn’t been made on whether to scrap the planned return of the massive annual New Year’s Eve gathering in Times Square, he and Adams put on an upbeat, united front.
“New York City is ready to fight Omicron,” de Blasio said.
Said Adams: “New Yorkers don’t avoid crises — they conquer them.”
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