Elected officials slammed Mayor Bill de Blasio Tuesday for closing 20 city-run COVID testing sites before the Omicron surge and called on him to quickly up testing capacity — especially for New Yorkers under 4.
“Toddlers are one of our most vulnerable at-risk populations because they’re not vaccinated,” said Councilmember-elect Shekar Krishnan of Queens, the parent of a 3-year-old son. “The fact that the city cannot respond as quickly as possible to create sites for toddlers under the age of 4 or to transition back to full-scale, fixed sites… reflects an alarming lack of sensitivity and attention to the problem.”
The criticism came as New Yorkers’ complaints of enduring long lines and delayed test results mounted amid the rampant, pre-holiday spread of the Omicron variant.
City Hall has promised to reach a total of 112 mobile or brick-and-mortar city-sponsored testing sites by the end of the week and offered a $100 incentive to anyone who receives the vaccine booster.
In an address to the nation Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden vowed half a billion free at-home COVID tests will be mailed to whomever wants them, and said the federal government will open more testing and vaccination sites. That includes some in New York City, he said.
Meanwhile, cancellations and postponements abounded — from Broadway shows to winter Regents exams to the Jan. 1 public inauguration of Mayor-elect Eric Adams.
“It’s going to be a challenging few weeks,” de Blasio said.
The additional testing sites can’t come fast enough for many pandemic-weary New Yorkers. Among them: a group of Queens lawmakers who criticized the city for closing 20 fixed-location COVID-19 testing sites before the latest Omicron wave, including a major center on Northern Boulevard in Woodside.
That site, inside a large parking lot next to a shuttered Sports Authority store, could accommodate hundreds of people each day. But the center closed this fall, when the city broke ground to begin construction on a new high school at the location.
“For days my office has received calls, emails and outreach via social media from constituents and New Yorkers across the city expressing concern about the lack of testing capacity at a time when COVID-19 transmission rates are increasing,” said Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas (D-Queens).
“New Yorkers should not have to wait in lines for hours, travel far, or worry their results will not be provided to them promptly.”
‘Shouldn’t Be This Difficult’
The elected officials also expressed concern over a lack of available testing for kids under 4 years old.
The city turned its outdoor testing site at LaGuardia Airport, which had tests for toddlers, into a mobile site. But mobile sites don’t provide testing for children younger than 4, leaving some Queens parents in a lurch.
Kisha Bari, of Jackson Heights, found herself scrambling over the weekend to find a nearby testing center for her 2-year-old son after she found out his nanny tested positive for COVID.
With LaGuardia not serving toddlers and the nearby NYC Health + Hospitals Elmhurst not open on Sundays, she had to rely on expensive rapid tests from the pharmacy, which gave inconsistent results.
Bari, who works as a photographer, brought her family to a privately run testing van for more tests that her insurance covered, and on Monday sought PCR tests from Elmhurst. Her son was COVID-positive. She wants the city to prioritize testing for toddlers.
“It shouldn’t be this difficult,” she said, adding it’s “terrifying” to think of spending hours waiting in line with a 2-year-old.
Megan Rockwell, a lawyer who also lives in Jackson Heights, needs to show a negative COVID test for her 2-year-old son so he can attend his nursery school after the holidays.
She had relied on the LaGuardia site for fast results and appreciated that she could check the lengths of lines online — not to mention that it was free. But now there’s no comparable testing site nearby. She’s not comfortable taking him to the nearby NYC Health + Hospitals Elmhurst because it’s indoors.
“If you’re talking about slowing the spread, you have to make testing accessible and easy to get to,” Rockwell said.
‘Health and Safety First’
The latest COVID surge forced the cancellation of January Regents exams, with Education Commissioner Betty Rosa citing the “daunting” spike in cases across the state. On Broadway, 13 shows canceled Tuesday-night performances due to COVID cases and “Jagged Little Pill” ended its run altogether.
Adams on Tuesday also announced his inauguration at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre would be postponed due to the virus. He had initially planned the indoor swearing-in ceremony for Jan. 1, alongside fellow Brooklynites Brad Lander, the city’s next comptroller, and returning Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
But as the city’s positivity rate continued to climb, the trio shifted gears. As of Tuesday afternoon, 13,760 new cases of COVID had been reported, according to city data.
“After consulting with public health experts, we have decided that our joint inauguration ceremony will be postponed to a later date in order to prioritize the health of all who were planning to attend, cover, and work on this major event,” Adams, Lander and Williams wrote in a joint statement.
“Health and safety must come first.”