NEW YORK — The city is on course this week to have 119 COVID testing sites — more than double what it had had last month. That’s in addition to a few federal testing sites and lots of home testing kits being distributed at some of the locations.
It’s all part of efforts to reduce the long lines seen around the city in the past week, as infections continue to rise along with concerns of people contracting the virus before holiday gatherings begin. It’s not yet clear how effective the efforts will be.
At his Wednesday briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced Sen. Charles Schumer as a special guest. The mayor presented the senator with a key to the city, and Schumer pulled out a piece of paper.
“I’m sending a letter to FEMA today,” he said, displaying it, “asking them for a hundred new mobile testing locations. We need these locations across the city. Now, today, they said, they’re sending six, that is not close to enough, given the magnitude of the crisis and what we need. “
For now, the number in operation will be three, as of Thursday. The mayor said he didn’t know where the federal testing sites would be located, or what their operating times would be, even though one of the three sites, in Travers Park, Queens, had opened at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.
The two others, opening Thursday, are at Queens Valley Playground and Helen Marshall Playground. All are run by the CDC, and located in Queens, where elected officials and healthcare leaders alike said the need is high.
With three operating federal test sites, instead of the 100 requested, it’s a situation that shows some of the challenges for testing.
Another challenge was acknowledged on Wednesday by the executive director of the city’s Test and Trace Corps, Dr. Ted Long. His organization has, in the past, successfully returned COVID test results in a 24-hour period, but has not been able to meet that goal in recent days, as the number of testing has increased.
“We are doing unprecedented levels of testing,” he said. “We’re doing nearly 170,000 tests in one day. Our previous record gains had been 120,000 tests in one day.”
“Over the last several days, we have noticed,” Dr. Long continued, “that the wait times have been getting longer for the turnaround at our city-run lab. It is still much faster than other labs, but what we’re doing today is by the end of the day today, making substantial operational changes to get us back to our constant goal of 24 hours.”
Mayor de Blasio and his health leaders also said that the city will hand out free at-home COVID testing kits at five mobile sites, when the kits are available.
However, it may be a while before there’s availability, said Cole Garson, the chief operating officer of iBrands Global. It’s a retail supply company that shifted its operations to provide PPE and other medical items to companies in need during the pandemic.
In that capacity, Garson has become a supply chain expert who’s anticipated the higher COVID testing demand. He acknowledges that there are challenges ahead.
“In the short term, yes, some [locations] are going to get supplied, some aren’t,” Garson said in an interview. “Some suppliers like us are going to have more success in getting supplies to their customers, but we’re going to struggle a bit. But we’re a lot better off than we were a month ago.”
He said that the supply stream will quickly build after a short-term drought.
Another change the city announced on Wednesday is that it’s also extending hours for its 119 Covid testing sites to 12 hours per day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
It’s all a reminder that, with COVID cases having doubled from a week ago, demand for testing is intense.
Dr. Mitchell Katz, who, as CEO of the city’s Health and Hospitals, oversees all city-operated healthcare facilities, acknowledged that the system is under strain.
“Cases are astronomically increasing. No question,” he said. “Cases themselves, we’ve never seen as high levels.”
However, Katz continued, there’s a drastically lower occurrence of severe illness, especially among unvaccinated people.
“The 11 hospitals of Health and Hospital currently have 54 patients in our ICUs due to COVID,” Katz said. “That’s compared to the peak in March 2020, where we had 970.”
All of the testing, as well as vaccines, and other treatments, he said, are part of a larger picture.
“So, cases — huge increase,” Katz concluded. “ICU — tiny increase.”