With the omicron variant spreading rapidly across Long Island, thousands of residents started the new year in their vehicles Saturday morning, lined up to receive free rapid COVID-19 testing kits at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, with the first cars arriving at 6 a.m.
The event, organized by Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who took office Saturday, appeared more organized and with fewer traffic backups than a similar event Thursday at nearby Mitchel Field hosted by now-former County Executive Laura Curran, where some residents waited two hours for kits.
The 77-acre Coliseum property was able to accommodate more vehicles in multiple entrances and exits, with a large staffing contingent moving traffic through the parking lot generally in less than 15 minutes. In total, 23,000 kits supplied by Nassau University Medical Center were distributed in less than five hours.
"We feel this is a better venue as far as traffic flow is concerned to make sure people don’t have to wait an inordinate amount of time," Blakeman said. "It’s very manageable."
On Friday, Blakeman said the Coliseum was selected because of its longer ramps and more aisles for cars to enter. The county tripled staffing, with 75 people from the police and health departments and the office of emergency management on hand.
"People need that sense of security to know that they’re going to be healthy and tested," said Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, who noted that 10% of the department’s civilian and uniformed workforce is now out with the virus.
But Saturday’s first-come, first-served event was not without some confusion.
The kits had one test apiece even as they were advertised to include two. And some county residents told Newsday that they waited nearly 90 minutes on Hempstead Turnpike during the late morning, only to arrive at the arena’s front gate and be told that all of the tests were distributed for the day.
But those who arrived early had few complaints and said obtaining the kits was essential — even on New Year’s Day.
"It’s not what we wanted but safety first," said Stacie Lynch of Franklin Square. "We are in the middle of a pandemic."
Jose Martinez of Uniondale said he was grateful to get the testing kits.
"It’s a great way to begin the new year," he said.
Kiara Santos, a volunteer with the South Hempstead Fire Department, was among those distributing the kits in the rain Saturday.
"I went to bed early and came here bright and early," Santos said. "We like to serve our community."
The county will distribute another 17,000 kits Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Coliseum parking lot.
Meanwhile, some Long Island school districts said they will begin distributing rapid test kits Sunday, though testing is not mandated for students to return Monday.
Each student is entitled to a single COVID-19 antigen at-home kit, containing two tests to be used for one person over two to three days. Parents can pick up the kit at designated locations starting Sunday, at least four districts said.
In Huntington, a drive-thru pickup will be offered Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Huntington High School, according to Superintendent James Polansky.
If a student tests positive, Huntington officials said the child should begin isolation immediately and report the results to Suffolk County and the district.
Parents of Plainview-Old Bethpage students who submit an online request can pick up test kits Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon, with distribution to continue into Monday, according to the district website.
Bayport-Blue Point parents can pick up tests kits at the district's high school Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. and Monday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
In Syosset, parents must register by completing a form online before they can pick up the kits beginning Sunday.
Parents are asked to report a positive result to the school so they can begin contact tracing and arrange for quarantine. But if a parent believes the result to be a "false positive," Syosset officials said a subsequent negative PCR test can overturn the rapid test result.
Syosset schools notified parents that the tests cannot be used to shorten or avoid quarantine for students following COVID-19 exposure, given that Nassau has declined to implement "Test To Stay."
The program, which Gov. Kathy Hochul has urged counties and districts to adopt, allows students who have been exposed to COVID-19 to continue attending school as long as they test negative for the virus.
Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said testing can help control the spread of the virus. The person who tests positive can then isolate and not infect others at a workplace or other venue, he said. And that person can also inform others who may have been exposed to the virus.
"If you do test positive, there’s a chain of people you may have come into contact with and you can call and say, ‘I tested positive. You should go and test as well,' ’’ Clouston said. "And then those people may also isolate, even if they don’t have symptoms, or their symptoms are sufficiently mild that they think it’s just allergies or something, and then you’re stopping that onward spread. If you can stop the chain before it jumps to the next person, you’ve really stopped a lot of cases."
With Dandan Zou, David Olson and Steve Langford