NYC Faces Covid-Testing Crunch Amid Rush to Reopen Idled Sites
(Bloomberg) -- New York City officials defended a move to shut down Covid-19 testing sites right before the omicron surge because of a lack of demand, pledging to ramp up testing again over the coming week.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city had seen demand drop at some sites and moved to a focus on mobile testing vans, but the spread of the omicron variant caught the city by surprise. That, coupled with a surge in people seeking tests ahead of the holidays, have led to hours-long lines across the city.
“We did not expect omicron to move quite this quickly,” de Blasio said during a Monday briefing. “That’s on us to quickly rebound, make the adjustments and get the personnel where they need to be.”
Still, the mayor and his health advisers had spent weeks warning residents of a winter surge of cases, especially as New Yorkers traveled ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in November. The testing capacity, however, didn’t appear to reflect those warnings as New Yorkers waited in long lines to get tested and a number of days to receive results.
Demand for testing across the city has ballooned since falling to a low in July, when roughly 23,000 molecular tests, such as PCR, and 8,000 rapid antigen tests were given a day. On Dec. 17, there were nearly 70,000 molecular and 25,000 antigen tests given, an increase of more than 200%.
Meanwhile, test results returned within one day fell to 54.8% on Dec. 11, down from 76% in July, according to the latest data available from the city.
Spread in Affluent Areas
Testing availability may be playing a role in the spikes of cases showing up in the data coming from more affluent neighborhoods in the city. During much of the pandemic, case spikes were concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods that were slower to get vaccinated.
However, during the most recent surge, neighborhoods in lower Manhattan are seeing some of the highest testing and positivity rates despite having among the highest vaccination rates. The positivity rate is 12.6% in Tribeca and 12.1% in Greenwich Village and Soho, compared with 7.7% citywide. Hospitalization levels in the neighborhoods, though, remain low so far.
|Hudson Square/Meatpacking District/West Village||12.05%|
The testing and positivity rates suggest lower Manhattan is “one of our earliest hot spots within the city” and where super-spreading events may have occurred, said Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor of population health at NYU Langone, who also conducts Covid modeling.
She said part of the reason why early cases appear concentrated in more affluent neighborhoods could be residents of those areas are doing more international travel or interacting more with travelers.
Another reason: More affluent neighborhoods may have easier access to at-home rapid tests, which could influence the positivity data in various ways as their results aren’t reported to the city, Bershteyn said.
For example, when people test as a precaution and take at-home tests instead of going to test sites, that lowers the total number of overall tests reported. Or, people who get a positive at-home test might be more compelled to get an in-person test for confirmation, increasing the amount of potentially positive people getting tested at in-person sites.
The city’s health department said there were no known clusters identified in Lower Manhattan and that the city was “seeing community transmission across the city,” said Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson Victoria Merlino.
Merlino said the increased case rates are likely related to the “increasing prevalence of the omicron variant, which is known to have high transmissibility and an increased potential to infect persons who are fully vaccinated.”
New York Governor Kathy Hochul said the state was ramping up testing and plans to launch an online portal where people can order PCR test kits online and have them mailed overnight to their home. Starting in early January, students in the state will also be able to take tests home with them, Hochul said at a briefing Monday.
Mitchell Katz, who runs New York City’s public hospitals, said the city has doubled testing in the last three weeks. Now, the city plans to add 23 sites this week to the 89 test sites currently open. They will also be sending out a group of reserve staffers to address shortages at certain sites, where a number of testing staffers called out sick.
“So, yes. I’m sorry that demand was so enormous over the last few days. We did not anticipate so much news about omicron. We did not anticipate that the supply chain would run out of the home tests,” Katz said, noting that staffing shortages are being addressed.
He said the city’s public hospitals are also taking action in anticipation of staffing shortages due to employees who get Covid. He said the public hospitals will move outpatient visits virtual, so the hospitals can redeploy nurses and staff assistants to handle testing and Covid hospitalizations that could accompany the spike in cases.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.