Even as the omicron variant surge has subsided, Suffolk and Nassau counties are providing free at-home COVID-19 tests, as doctors note that a regular testing regimen is key to keeping the virus at bay.
The testing kits were delivered to local governments and schools by New York State over the past few months and counties and town are giving them out to local nonprofits and residents, officials said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced plans Monday to distribute about 3,000 at-home COVID-19 tests to residents on March 21. He said the distribution will take place from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the lobby of the H. Lee Dennison Building, located at 100 Veterans Memorial Highway in Hauppauge.
"As we continue to navigate our new normal, with progress being made every day, it is still important to ensure that our residents, including our most vulnerable populations, have access to all of the tools necessary to fight this virus and keep themselves safe," Bellone said in a news release. "Testing plays a vital role in keeping this virus under control and will be absolutely critical as we begin to live with this virus as part of our everyday lives."
Suffolk County’s daily positivity rate has remained under 2% for more than two weeks, while Nassau has been around 2% or lower since the end of February. Total hospitalized cases have sharply decreased for both counties within the last few weeks.
Bellone plans on working with a number of nonprofits including Island Harvest and Family Service League, as well as local libraries. County legislators and towns will be also be distributing 300,000 of the test kits, along with masks and hand sanitizer, within the next several months, officials said.
Allison Puglia, vice president of Programs and Agency Relations for Island Harvest, said they have been working with Suffolk County throughout the pandemic to distribute testing kits.
"We are a responder in emergencies and the value in these partnerships allows us to take the steps needed to help the communities as quickly as possible," Puglia said.
Island Harvest uses their access points, including about 400 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and mobile distribution to deliver testing kits, Puglia added. The organization serves about 300,000 families a year.
In Nassau, county officials plan on giving out about 15,000 testing kits to about 25-30 nonprofit organizations this week, Chris Boyle, a county spokesman, said. The county has set up an online portal on their website, he added, where nonprofits can request testing kits.
In a statement, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said: "My Administration continues to provide at home Covid tests residents and not for profit organizations who want them. We have given away almost 400,000 tests thus far, since I took office."
Nassau County currently has no scheduled events to distribute kits to residents, as they did in December during a spike in daily positivity rates, which topped 26% in early January.
Dr. Matthew Harris, medical director for Northwell’s vaccine program, said getting tested is especially vital as there is a decrease in mask wearing and social distancing.
"While it is certainly true that the numbers seem to be going down, we’ve been here before, and unfortunately we don’t have predictive ability as to what the next surge might look like," Harris said. "The ability to test rapidly and widely remains important now and if there is a recurrent surge of another variant."
He noted that at-home tests are more accurate for symptomatic people and may be less accurate for asymptomatic people. He advises individuals, who show symptoms, to retest themself 24-36 hours after the first test or get a PCR test, if their first test comes back negative.
Harris said the distribution of free at-home COVID tests is an "important public health initiative."
"While this continues to exist, I think making tests more readily available at no cost, specially to populations where it’s difficult to find access to testing, is an important thing to do," Harris said.