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Health System Readies ‘Surge’ COVID Testing Operation While Shutting Down Outreach

With contact tracing phasing out, “Test & Trace” stages test prep for the next wave.

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Brooklynites receiving a PCR test from a mobile COVID testing site along Flushing Ave in Bushwick on Tuesday, December 21, 2021.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

Seeking to secure testing capacity in the event of a future COVID case spike, the city’s public hospital system is moving to line up private “surge response” teams — even as it’s shutting down contact tracing and laying off nearly 900 government-employed, union workers.

The Health and Hospitals Corporation put out a call last week for project managers and up to 10 firms that would provide fixed-location and mobile testing sites. Those teams would only be deployed if and when city health officials decide their services are needed. 

The new request for proposals states that vendors should be able to deploy at least 10 community testing teams a day, five days a week for eight hours a day — with as little as five days’ notice. The surge operation could begin as soon as next month, according to the proposal documents.

The move coincides with the federal government ending coverage of free COVID tests for people without health insurance, and reports of people being turned away at some testing facilities.

COVID case rates have recently seen an uptick, with 2.4% of tests showing a positive result in the seven-day period through April 4 — but still far lower than the 22.5% rate at the peak of the winter omicron wave.

Test and Trace spokesperson Adam Shrier said in a statement on Wednesday that the hospital system “continues to prepare for any future surge, including maintaining the current COVID-19 testing system and the ability to rapidly double the number of testing sites using the infrastructure we’ve built.” 

“This month, Test & Trace is also distributing 6.3 million at-home tests at thousands of locations to make free COVID testing available to New Yorkers in advance of any surge,” Shrier added. “This will ensure New Yorkers have at-home tests before they get sick, so they can test themselves at the first sign of symptoms and know if they have COVID before heading to work, school or seeing family and friends.”

Health and Hospitals currently lists 30 brick-and-mortar testing sites around the city, significantly less than earlier in the pandemic, in addition to pop-up and mobile locations. The public hospital Test and Trace system also handles random testing in public schools and at-home test kits sent home with students. 

‘A Difficult Situation’

Community health advocates welcomed the prospect of additional testing capacity, after a shortage of sites and at-home tests spurred epic lines during the omicron surge in the thick of last year’s December holiday season. But they also had questions about when and how the new forces will be deployed.

“What we’re missing is transparency and accountability,” said Ivelyse Andino, the founder and CEO of Bronx-based community health organization Radical Health. “What’s going to happen to the actual services that are going to be provided? Where is the funding going, and how is it being allocated? In the event that we do not have a surge, what’s going to happen to this funding?”

People wait to get tested for COVID at Elmhurst Hospital, Jan. 5, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Also still unknown is the price tag that could be borne by local taxpayers. A December presentation to Health & Hospitals board members showed that the system had already issued testing contracts to private vendors totaling nearly $456 million, covering both school and community testing.

The “trace” in Test and Trace will be moving to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which historically has tracked disease outbreaks but got sidelined by former Mayor Bill de Blasio. Their efforts will now be limited to high-risk settings where vulnerable people live in close quarters, such as nursing homes and homeless shelters. 

And the health department will have spots for fewer than 300 contract tracers — leaving nearly 400 still without a job at the end of the month. 

“We’re trying to navigate a difficult situation,” Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the union representing those workers, said in an interview on Monday. “The issue is the numbers. There’s a big need, and we’re trying to match people up before the end of the program.”

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