BY CHRIS LeBRON | Our City has been slow to combat the rising effect of COVID-19. We have known that the Omicron variant was going to be as aggressive as Delta if not more, but are only now working to build an adequate response that could have any hope of keeping people safe. What we learned from last winter’s drastic sharp rise in case counts was that testing is a critical part of our greatest defense against the virus. The testing lines were memorably long last December—and we’re seeing similarly long lines at City MDs and local testing centers now. Mayor Bill de Blasio has just announced that New York City will distribute free at-home tests and KN95 masks to residents. While this is a step in the right direction, we must work together to see this adequately executed.
This fall testing fell while Delta was on the rise throughout lower vaccinated areas of the state and country. Testing capacity was not adequately shored up when reports from southern Africa and the United Kingdom documented Omicron waves. As lines grow at urgent care and testing facilities, we know there are other viable options and are finally seeing them getting rolled out. The next step will be ensuring it’s done in a way that gets tests and masks in the hands of everyone, in particular those who need them most.
There has long been a strong argument for an at-home COVID-19 testing program in New York City. Manhattan Borough President Elect Mark Levine has publicly criticized the high costs and the lack of availability of consumer packaged, at-home rapid testing products at drug stores. He was, and still is, correct. At $22 per box of two tests, and increases in prices at the checkout line, we have a government that has made us choose between feeding our families and safely testing for the virus. Some locations are charging $40 for a singular rapid test to be administered. The prices are egregiously high for this life-saving technology.
De Blasio’s promise to send 500,000 free at-home COVID-19 tests and 1 million KN95 masks to the city’s residents also comes in the wake of his shuttering 20 city-run testing sites. While the mayor says at-home tests will be distributed through community organizations, New York’s Test and Trace Corps, and local clinics, and also plans to roll out more testing centers with extended hours, it is imperative that this be done quickly and efficiently—and not face a similar fate to past temporary measures.
I am also concerned that 500,000 tests is simply not enough to keep our city of 8.5 million people safe. New Hampshire had a similar plan for at-home testing, and while residents showed a real interest, the high demand meant the state quickly ran out of kits. With only 1 test per 17 residents, the mayor’s office is yet again underestimating need.
After Thursday, December 23, nearly one million children in the New York City public school system who currently undergo surveillance testing at schools will fall out of coverage because of the holiday break. Unlike Hawaii, we do not mandate domestic airline travelers show a negative test 24 hours prior to flight and provide proof of vaccination in order to enter the City. Leadership has continuously called for the end of remote work to support our struggling central business districts; however, that will mean an influx of people from suburban areas where mask mandate enforcement is sparse or non-existent, and testing and vaccination rates are lower than the City.
After the holidays, many New Yorkers will come from visiting family and vacations. Employers are beginning to call in their workforce back to the office—some part-time, some full-time—with complete disregard to those New Yorkers caring for children alone, or caring for immunocompromised family members.
We need to be prepared for all eventualities. To put it plainly, we cannot ask our city’s residents to wait for hours outside during the wet, snowy, and frigid winter months simply to be tested. Easily self-administered saliva based PCR tests need to be distributed to families via the USPS and couriers or whatever method is most expedient. Partnerships need to be made and plans need to be executed with food delivery workers. Stock these kits at local bodegas. Stock the kits at churches. Stock the kits at senior centers. Stock the kits at the local 24-hour delis. Stock the kits at bus depots.
I speak to the parents in my community daily and they will not tolerate another year of COVID remote learning. I have spoken to educators in my community and they are talking about the potential for mass resignations. I have spoken to restaurant owners who cannot endure another shutdown. I have spoken to my senior citizen neighbors who are beginning to isolate themselves from the world as cases rise.
This is no way to raise children. No way to serve the public. And it is certainly no way to live out your later years. We have lost 1 out of every 100 senior citizens over the age of 65 to COVID-19 in this nation. Let us utilize every tool at our disposal to flatten the curve. The people of New York deserve it.
Chris LeBron is a former Policy Director for the New York City Council and is now a candidate for the New York State Assembly. He resides in Hell’s Kitchen, where he is the President of the West 47th Street Tenants Association and is a known housing advocate in the City and State. Chris has represented Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan Community Board 4 for the last five years.
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