Dec. 21, 2021 By Allie Griffin
Queens officials are calling on the mayor to add more COVID-19 testing sites in western Queens — especially sites capable of testing children too young to receive the vaccine.
Nine elected officials from Queens held various press conferences Tuesday to demand the city open more COVID-19 testing sites in the borough as residents wait in long lines —often for hours—outside existing facilities.
“It is not right that older adults and other medically fragile people are waiting for tests for two to three hours, only to be turned away,” Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas said at a virtual press conference she organized alongside other elected officials.
Their calls for greater testing capacity come as new COVID-19 cases skyrocket in the city due to the highly contagious Omicron variant. The seven-day average of new cases in NYC is more than 9,000 per day, according to city data.
Several officials specifically called on the mayor to open more sites that offer COVID-19 testing for children under age four. Currently, just three city-run test sites in the whole borough are capable of testing children as young as two-years-old and zero offer testing for infants.
“The appalling lack of testing sites in Queens for toddlers is something that needs to be addressed immediately by our city,” Council Member-elect Shekar Krishnan said at the press conference organized by González-Rojas.
Testing for children age four and younger is urgently needed because they are not yet eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and are more vulnerable to contracting the virus, he added.
“The problem is, again, toddlers are one of our most vulnerable at-risk populations because they’re not vaccinated,” Krishnan, who is the father of a three-year-old boy, said. “When I think about contracting COVID I’m most worried… about our toddler who isn’t vaccinated, and the effects that will have on him.”
A Jackson Heights mother who joined the virtual press conference said her two-year-old son has contracted COVID-19. She purchased a $30 at-home rapid test to test him because Elmhurst Hospital is the only facility in her area capable of testing children under four years old.
“The parents in our community have been scrambling to find reliable testing for the young ones for months now,” Kisha Bari said. “And with all of the kids at daycare and preschool, every single toddler illness has COVID symptoms so testing [is] imperative for the well-being of our entire community.”
Bari said that several test sites that offered COVID testing of toddlers, including one at LaGuardia airport and another on Nothern Boulevard, were shuttered by the city and replaced by mobile sites that only provide testing of children four and up — if they were replaced at all.
“Now with the wave of Omicron we cannot expect a[n unvaccinated] two-year-old to be waiting for two hours in a line to get a COVID test,” she said. “I can’t even express how terrifying that is for us.”
The rise in demand for testing comes about a month after the city closed down 20 city-run sites across the five boroughs.
The pols said the city’s decision was nonsensical ahead of the holiday gatherings and colder weather. They added that the mobile testing centers, which the city has deployed to replace the shuttered sites — like those at LaGuardia and JFK airports — are not adequate.
State Senator Michael Gianaris, who held his own in-person press conference at Athens Square Park, said the city needs to create permanent testing sites rather than mobile sites, which are often moved around the city.
“Western Queens is underserved by the number of testing sites available, and we need more – now,” Gianaris said. “I urge the city to create a stronger program of permanent test sites — and do so quickly — so we can keep all our neighbors safe.”
Council Member Tiffany Cabán said the city knew what was coming with Omicron — having witnessed what happened in South Africa — and should have been prepared, but instead failed to protect New Yorkers by shuttering test sites.
Likewise, Assembly Member Catalina Cruz said she was saddened by the mayoral administration’s failure to foresee the rise in cases and be ready for it.
“I think, if anything, we learned over the last year is to not wait to the last minute to kind of try to figure out how to fix the issue at hand,” Cruz said at the virtual presser.
Council Member-elect Julie Won experienced the lack of testing first-hand. Won, who is seven months pregnant, tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday five days after being exposed to someone who was positive.
Won said she woke up Sunday with “excruciating pain in my ears, my throat and had trouble breathing.”
“You can imagine the amount of fear that was running through our brains, as we were figuring out what to do next and how to move quickly,” she said.
Pregnant women are at greater risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Won was only able to secure a test at Elmhurst Hospital after trying and failing to get tested at various sites over a five-day period. She said she was turned away from three other sites she tried including a mobile site where she waited in line for two and a half hours in the cold rain.
“Nobody should be getting turned away when it’s a matter of life and death,” Won said.