Everyone has their pandemic pastime. What’s Francine Ricchi’s? Tracking the lengths of COVID testing lines.
For more than a year, the Boerum Hill resident has done laps around her Brooklyn neighborhood almost daily, tallying the number of people waiting to get their noses swabbed and then posting to her Twitter account.
On her most recent trips, though, Ricchi has seen a change in the testing sites along her route. During past waves, she has watched lines grow and dwindle, as community transmission rises and falls. And sure enough, as cases skyrocketed in December, she documented queues of more than 100 people waiting to get tested.
But even though the daily number of New York City cases has still been enormously high — day after day larger than the peak once recorded in April 2020 – Ricchi said testing lines have become ghost towns.
“It was mostly documenting different locations showing there was no line at opening time,” she said. On January 26th, when the daily average case rate was 5,054, “there was really nobody. At one location, there were two people. We’re definitely in this period where demand for tests has dropped off.”
City data supports Ricchi’s findings. As COVID cases have come down from their omicron summit, so too have tests, which is to be expected.
But official PCR testing numbers have been cut nearly in half over two weeks. Last year, a similar drop took six months. It’s the sharpest drop over the shortest time ever recorded during the pandemic.
PCR testing numbers have been cut nearly in half over two weeks. Last year, a similar drop took six months.
In the most recent week for which complete data is available, about 86,700 New Yorkers got a PCR COVID test each day. That’s down from an early-January apex of almost 133,300 such tests per day. Antigen tests are trending in much the same way.
For comparison, during the winter wave a year ago, daily testing doubled from October to January, peaking at an average of 69,000 PCR tests. This tally didn’t shrink back to its original level until June.
City-run COVID sites are doing less than half as much testing now as they were in early January, said Dr. Ted Long, a primary care physician and executive director of the New York City Test & Trace Corps.
“As omicron was under better control and people started to see cases were no longer sharply rising, the impetus to get tested also went down a bit across the city,” Long said. He added that record numbers of New Yorkers sought to get tested before traveling to see family over the last winter holiday, as recommended by city health officials. After the break, that demand cooled off.
CityMD, a local urgent care chain, is administering 40% fewer COVID tests than at the height of the omicron testing crush, said Matt Gove, a spokesperson for the private health care provider.
Did Official Numbers Drop Due To COVID Fatigue Or At-Home Tests?
Frustrations over slow turnaround times might also be dissuading people from seeking tests.
Turnaround times took a hit around the start of the holiday season, and the issues persisted for some providers through the first half of January. In the run-up to Christmas, CityMD needed five-plus days on average to return test results. The urgent care chain shuttered 19 of its approximately 150 offices in December, citing staffing challenges. All have since reopened.
Other private health providers faltered, too. Jessica Benmen, a 27-year-old East Village resident, got results on January 27th from a COVID test she’d taken at a Labworq location on December 31st — a whopping 28 days earlier.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James sent the Brooklyn-based testing company a warning letter in December demanding that it report accurate turnaround times for its COVID-19 tests. Labworq is one of a half dozen companies to receive such warnings, the others being ClearMD Health, LabQ, Sameday Health, EZ Test NY and Keep Health Safe,
“I’d forgotten that I even did it,” Benmen said, “It’s almost worse that they sent it to me this late.”
Citywide, turnaround times haven’t yet fully returned to their pre-omicron speed, but they have rebounded from early January, when less than 60% of tests came back within two days. Now, more than three-quarters of tests return results within 48 hours, according to data compiled by the New York City health department.
CityMD is now returning PCR tests in two or three days, Gove said, and turnaround times are even quicker at municipal-run sites. More than 80% of tests come back within 24 hours, Long said. He chalked the speed up to their pandemic response lab, which processes tests conducted at city sites.
Benmen, who gets tested before seeing friends and family, has experienced the improvement firsthand. Most tests she takes come back quickly, but she also says she's now using rapid tests more often. The holiday season's long lines and waits made rapid tests a more convenient option for New Yorkers who could get their hands on the limited supplies.
But home tests aren't counted in the city's official records, so it's hard to tell whether New Yorkers are actually getting tested less frequently — or simply switching over to rapid tests taken at home. When asked why the city hadn't incorporated at-home tests into its recordkeeping, a spokesperson told WNYC/Gothamist to contact the New York State Department of Health for an answer.
The New York State Department of Health said the decision was up to New York City officials.
"Local health departments have launched their own portals for at-home test tracking and approval by the Department is not required," state health department spokesperson Erin Silk wrote in an email, citing the examples of Warren and Tompkins counties.
Long said the city has distributed more than 8 million at-home test kits, 6.6 million of which went to New York City schools. The city began handing out the kits in mid-December. Assuming the free at-home kits have experienced the same average positivity rate as the city’s PCR testing since then, at least 1.7 million cases could have been potentially missed by recordbooks.
Francine Ricchi said that while short lines are less likely to make a splash with her Twitter followers, she'll keep documenting her local testing sites.
"Documenting zero people on line is just as important as documenting 50 or 60 waiting at open," she said. She also enjoys the excuse to go outside.
"It's a good morning routine for me to get up and get moving," Ricchi added. "Little bit of exercise. It's not a bad way to start your day."