Testing Demand Has Doubled in NYC Over Omicron Fears

Waiting in line at a COVID-19 testing site in Times Square. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

For many New Yorkers, the best way to enjoy the unseasonably mild on Wednesday was to wait in line to get tested for COVID. With the Omicron variant expected to bring a surge of U.S. cases, socially distant lines snaked outside many coronavirus testing sites throughout the city this week. Anecdotes spilled in across the city of waiting hours to get swabbed:

With the seven-day average of new cases in the city doubling since Thanksgiving, there are indicators that the virus is lifting off here after a slow ascent since the fall. And while data in the city is currently only available up until December 12, the demand this week suggests a major increase in the COVID-anxious and potentially exposed seeking out tests.

“It’s almost like PTSD from 2020,” said Dr. Andrew Wallach, the head of New York City’s Health + Hospitals ambulatory care operation, where he oversees 17 major city-run testing sites. Speaking with Intelligencer on Wednesday evening, Wallach said that demand for tests has more than doubled over the past few days: “This is not a subtle increase. This is a significant and real increase in demand.” He cites several reasons for the uptick, including testing ahead of holiday gatherings and travel and a “direct correlation” between people watching a rising positivity rate — a crude if misleading metric of spread — and responding with increased demand for testing. But the most common reason for the testing spike has been worry about the impending Omicron wave: “People are very concerned about increased transmissibility of the variant.”

The number of people getting swabbed is growing rapidly in a city humming with pandemic stress. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the crush is going to be as rough as last holiday season, when hours-long waits for tests were routine, waits for results often stretched toward a week, and vaccines were not yet available to the general public. To prepare for the expected rush, Wallach said that his department’s testing program was “built to flex and contract as needed,” with plans in place to hire more nurses to perform tests and expand to seven-days-a-week, which conveniently began this month. And while lines at many pharmacies and emergency-care centers are exceeding one hour, Wallach says a 30-minute start-to-finish is the standard at Health + Hospitals ambulatory care sites, and a one-day wait for results is guaranteed.

New York is not the only U.S. city with residents who are anxious that they’ve been exposed to Omicron or another variant. In west Baltimore, PCR appointments are growing more difficult to find and clinics in Cambridge, Massachusetts have also been experiencing higher demand. Meanwhile, there are concerns that at-home kits may not be widely available and will remain expensive in the coming weeks, a week after the Biden administration faced significant pushback for refusing to provide free at-home testing for all Americans. According to Politico, the administration is warning COVID test manufacturers and laboratories that demand could potentially triple over the next two months as Omicron spreads across the nation.

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Testing Demand Has Doubled in NYC Over Omicron Fears