De Blasio Boosts Testing, Free Masks As Omicron Swoops In

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Responding to New York City’s surge of coronavirus cases caused at least in part by the more contagious Omicron variant, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday that the city would provide 1 million KN95 masks and 500,000 at-home tests free to New Yorkers.

These acute measures are part of a broader push to expand testing and pandemic safety in New York City, as the metro area faces the brunt of Omicron’s first few weeks in the United States. Those efforts include New York City Health + Hospitals adding five new brick-and-mortar testing sites and additional mobile testing throughout the city; an expanded ad campaign encouraging residents to get vaccine boosters; and more inspections of businesses ensuring that mask and vaccine mandates are being observed. Crucially for those whose jobs do not allow them to wait in long COVID testing lines, the administration also vowed on Thursday to provide people waiting at city-run testing sites a free self-testing kit to take home. The new efforts are to begin Monday, when the 1 million free masks and 500,000 self-testing kits will begin being distributed in neighborhoods identified by the city’s Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity.

“We want to remove all barriers so that every New Yorker who’s made that sacrifice to come out to one of our sites does not leave empty-handed and gets tested in a way that works for them,” Dr. Ted Long, the executive director of the city’s Test & Trace Corps, said at the conference announcing the measures.

The boosted program comes at a challenging time for the city, with a crush of demand causing substantial lines at many private testing centers and the number of positive tests skyrocketing in a short time: Between last Thursday and Sunday, the test-positivity rate doubled, something “we’ve never seen,” tweeted mayoral advisor and epidemiologist Jay Varma. According to New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene commissioner Dave Choski, around 13 percent of cases early this week were confirmed to be the Omicron variant.

Cases in New York State have jumped considerably as well over the past few days, from around 12,400 reported on Wednesday to more than 18,000 on Thursday. And as Omicron encroaches further into the Northeast, Maine and New Hampshire now have higher seven-day averages than any other time during the pandemic and New Jersey is close to breaking its single-day record.

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De Blasio Boosts Testing, Offers Free Masks Amid Omicron