People wait in line for a rapid COVID test outside Hunter College on the Upper East Side, Dec. 16, 2021/Ben Fractenberg, THE CITY
People wait in line for a rapid COVID test outside Hunter College on the Upper East Side, Dec. 16, 2021/Ben Fractenberg, THE CITY

De Blasio Shut Down 20 City-Run COVID Testing Facilities Ahead of Omicron Surge

Claudia Irizarry Aponte, Will Welch, and Eileen Grench, THE CITY

This article was originally published on Dec 16 at 7:24pm EST by THE CITY

Lines are long and tempers short as New Yorkers queue up — some for hours — to receive COVID tests as infections surge, fueled by highly contagious variants. 

One reason for the waits: The number of city-operated fixed-location testing centers listed dropped dramatically in the middle of November from 54to 34, with 31 operating as of Wednesday, an analysis by THE CITY of city Health + Hospital system data shows.

On Wednesday, 8,318 New Yorkers had a positive COVID lab or rapid test, according to state Department of Health figures tracked by THE CITY — up from 5,084 Tuesday and 3,124 Monday. 

That’s a seven-day average rate of 54 per 100,000 people, up from around 30 per day earlier this month.

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to boost testing center hours and locations, and to give out free masks and home COVID-testing kits as the Omicron variant spreads.

“This variant is fast,” de Blasio said. “We need to move faster.”

While Omicron was moving quickly, lines outside testing centers proved slow going.

Among those waiting in Brooklyn on Wednesday was a woman who said she’d gone to five different locations in search of a rapid test — finally finding one at a city-run pop-up site near Marcy Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

She waited about two hours for her turn, she said, missing her shift as a barista. 

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“It shouldn’t be like this every time you have to get a COVID test we’re all waiting for and getting them at the same time,” said the woman, who was getting tested for her job asked that her name not be published. “There just has to be better infrastructure for people to get tested quickly.”

State health stats show upwards of 146,000 tests administered Wednesday, compared with about 106,000 on Dec. 1.

Posted maximum wait times for tests at the remaining city-run sites have risen from a seven-day average low of 7 minutes in mid-November, before the removal of the 20 locations from the website, to 30 minutes in the past week.

Wait times are increasing at COVID testing sites run by NYC Health + Hospitals amid concern over Omicron

Bronx Sites Lost

Even as demand grows with the spread of Omicron and people hoping to spend time with family for the holidays, once reliable city hospital-run testing locations have become scarce. 

Among the brick-and-mortar sites no longer running are a large center on Northern Boulevard in Woodside, Queens, and five community locations in The Bronx.

A popular Health + Hospitals testing site on Dyckman St. and Sherman Ave. shuttered late last summer, leaving Manhattan above 181st Street with limited testing options.

Health + Hospitals is increasingly relying on private testing companies that operate mobile locations — brand names that are not always familiar to patients who have to trust their personal information and swab samples will be properly handled.

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THE CITY previously reported on surprise bills received by customers of one private testing service, CareCube, which is not an H+H contractor.

Emily DeMarco, a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, told THE CITY she had to take off an entire day of school on Monday to wait in line at a CityMD in downtown Brooklyn. It took about three hours for her to get tested, she said.

After another exposure this week, she was back at it, braving a nearly 40-person line at a MedRite urgent care on Court Street while others covered her classroom.

Emily DeMarco, left, and Merida Mehaffey wait for a COVID test at a downtown Brooklyn MedRite, Dec. 16, 2021/Eileen Grench, THE CITY

Standing in front of DeMarco was Merida Mehaffey — who noted that the city testing site she used to frequent in a Crown Heights school had shut down. And while her boss is understanding of her weekly tests, she wonders about those who can’t afford to wait in line.

“I know that there’s many people that’s not the situation for,”  said Mehaffey. “And getting a test before they get off work, or after they get off work before they go home is really challenging.”

More Centers Coming

De Blasio and Test & Trace Commissioner Ted Long announced new efforts to ramp up testing Thursday afternoon, including expanded hours at city-run sites to seven days a week. 

Long added the city would open five more brick-and-mortar testing locations, and said that visitors to city testing sites will have the option to take a free at-home testing kit rather than wait in line.

De Blasio also announced the city will distribute one million KN95 masks “immediately” through Test & Trace Corps and community partners. 

In addition, he promised, 500,000 rapid at-home tests would be distributed for free through community organizations “directly to the grassroots.”

Binax Now Covid-19 at-home self test/Upper East Site
Binax Now Covid-19 at-home self test/Upper East Site

Manhattan borough president-elect Mark Levine, who chairs the City Council’s health committee, urged shipping tests to New Yorkers at home, citing states like Colorado that have done the same.

“It’s just absolutely urgent that it becomes easier to get a test in New York City,” Levine said.

Asked last week about the widespread shutdowns of many brick-and-mortar Test & Trace centers operated by the public Health + Hospitals system, Test & Trace spokesperson Adam Shrier highlighted the work of contractors operating mobile sites and school testing. Among them: RRT, DocGo, MedRite, Mt. Sinai Hospital, BioReference Laboratories, Fulgent Genetics and SOMOS Community Care.

“NYC Test & Trace continues to operate the largest testing apparatus in the country and has recently announced the doubling of our mobile testing fleet to ensure convenient, no-barrier testing is available to all,” he said in a statement. 

“At the height of COVID-19, many partners offered their spaces as testing sites. We are grateful for their generosity, and as in-person services began to reopen (for instance, in libraries), we transitioned certain sites to mobile testing.”

The shift to mobile, often temporary testing sites comes as city budget figures show Test & Trace funding — most of which comes from the federal government — has been slashed in half.

Besides running testing centers, Test & Trace does outreach to people who test positive or are contacts of those who test positive to ensure they isolate safely, including in free hotel rooms if desired.

Numbers analyzed by the city Independent Budget Office show Test & Trace budgeted for $539 million in the current fiscal year that began in July — down from $1.2 billion in the 2020-’21 fiscal year.

Omicron was first detected last month outside the U.S. and has mutations believed to make it highly infectious, though it remains to be seen if it is more or less deadly than previous strains. 

As of Wednesday, 956 people were hospitalized in New York City with the virus, state Department of Health figures indicate. City health stats show 11 people died with confirmed or presumed COVID infections on any given day in the most recent seven-day period measured.

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