NYC Contends With Rising COVID Cases by Adding Test Locations, Distributing At-Home Kits

New York City will add test locations and distribute at-home testing kits as a way to contend with a surge in COVID cases.

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would add 20 new fixed locations and three testing vans. The city will also give out 500,000 at-home testing kits and 1 million masks, de Blasio said last Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

The city had previously closed several testing centers last month due to lack of demand and to focus on adding more testing vans.

The 130,000 tests done daily at city-sponsored sites are double what the numbers were three weeks ago. The U.S. is combating the rise of the Omicron variant, as well as a monthslong surge caused by the Delta variant, with many places in the country having higher infection rates than New York City did in the last week. The fast increase in cases is concerning health experts.

Almost 42,600 people across the city tested positive from Wednesday through Saturday. On Sunday alone, there were over 15,000 more positive tests. In comparison, the month of November totaled less than 35,800 positive tests.

"Um, we've never seen this before in #NYC," tweeted mayoral public health adviser Dr. Jay Varma on Thursday in regard to the rising positive test rate in recent days.

Since testing became widely available, the city has never had this many positive tests in such a period of time. It is unknown how many people contracted COVID-19 during the city's first surge in spring 2020.

NYC, COVID Surge, New Testing Locations
New York City has become a COVID-19 hot spot amid a spike in cases and a scramble for testing. Above, people wait in a long line to get tested for COVID-19 in Times Square on Monday, December 20. Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Dr. Mitchell Katz, who runs the city's public hospital system, said officials didn't anticipate "so much news about Omicron" or supplies of home test kits running low. Meanwhile, smaller testing sites ran into staffing problems this weekend as workers themselves contracted the virus, he said.

Katz said the city would now ensure it had people ready to fill in and take other steps to ease the testing crunch.

As recently as December 1, New York City's number of new cases per person was running just over half the state average, by state figures. Now, the city is above the statewide average.

Hospitalizations also have been increasing, though much more slowly. New admissions citywide were averaging around 110 per day through the middle of last week, roughly double the number a month earlier. But the average at this time last year was around 230, and it topped 1,600 in early April 2020.

The average number of deaths per day neared 800 then and 100 in late January of this year. It's fairly steady, at around a dozen, as of the middle of last week.

Hospitalizations and deaths tend to trail cases in rising and falling. But officials note that in South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first identified, a surge in cases has not been followed by a commensurate rise in hospitalizations and deaths.

New York hospitals say they have seen modest, but manageable, increases.

Still, hospitals are bracing for staffing crunches as infections or exposures force staffers to stay home. Katz said the public system's clinics are shifting to almost all virtual visits so that some nurses and assistants can be shifted to hospitals and testing sites.

"We know how to do this. We are prepared," Katz said at a virtual news conference with the Democratic mayor.

In some ways, there's no comparison to the virus' terrifying first strike, when no one was vaccinated, mask-wearing was almost unheard of in New York, and clinicians were just beginning to learn how to treat COVID-19.

Still, some public health experts say officials here and elsewhere still haven't learned from experience.

"We're seeing an underreaction, continually," said Dr. Stanley Weiss, a Rutgers University epidemiology professor. He thinks officials should immediately redefine "fully vaccinated" to include boosters; limit indoor public spaces to the vaccinated, boosted and constantly masked; and improve indoor ventilation, among other steps.

Whatever the differences, there still are some echoes of 2020.

The city is weighing whether it can go ahead with a beloved tradition—this time, the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square, instead of the 2020 St. Patrick's Day Parade. And residents are once again wrestling with decisions about everyday activities that suddenly seem risky.

Sheldon Rogers went to his office holiday party earlier this month, thinking it finally seemed safe to celebrate with colleagues at the tech company where he works in customer service. After a post-party outbreak, he spent nearly three hours waiting for a test—which came back negative—Wednesday at a privately run urgent care center in Brooklyn.

Miriam Van Harn waited Monday in a 200-person testing line in Times Square, trying to figure out whether she could see her family for Christmas. She had spent a week masking up in her own apartment and isolating herself from a roommate who had tested positive.

"It definitely feels like that first wave of the pandemic, with that anxiety," said Van Harn, a graduate student, remembering how "we didn't know what was happening.

"But we do know what's happening" now, she added. "We have vaccines. We have masks. We know how to keep ourselves safe."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

New York City, COVID Surge, Testing Lcoations
There are 130,000 tests done daily at city-sponsored sites in New York City, double what the numbers were three weeks ago. Above, people wait in line at a COVID-19 testing location in the city's Flatiron neighborhood on December 20. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images