People wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 outside...

People wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 outside a City MD in Levittown on Monday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Islanders are used to standing on line during the holiday season — usually, at a shopping mall or food store.

But this year, residents are waiting hours for COVID-19 tests.

There must be a better way.

After nearly two years of this particular coronavirus, the United States still lacks a comprehensive testing strategy. Federal and state officials should be able to get free or inexpensive, effective at-home antigen tests into people's hands quickly. The same goes for the more expensive PCR tests administered by health professionals. Right now, wait times are way too long for test appointments, and results.

The country's testing capabilities remain disappointingly lackluster even amid warnings of a winter surge and the knowledge that a highly contagious variant is spreading. Without adequate and widespread testing, COVID, especially the omicron variant, threatens our lifestyles and economy. When President Joe Biden speaks to the nation Tuesday, he must detail a plan to dramatically increase the country's testing capacity. That should include mass testing facilities with enough personnel and supply.

The main focus should be on at-home testing kits. Until recently easily available for purchase, such kits are now hard to find, more expensive, or available only in bulk quantities for upward of $1,000. Biden should be prepared to invoke the Defense Production Act again, on testing supplies, and on other issues, like needed monoclonal antibodies. Biden also must work with the states — Colorado, for example, is ahead on this front — to make tests widely available, for free, nationally. Frequent at-home testing is one way to know as much as possible that someone is COVID-free before heading into the office, seeing a show, or gathering with friends or family.

In New York, too, more must be done. Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state will be getting 10 million additional test kits for schools and counties, and for individuals to request. That's good but more is needed. The results of at-home tests aren't easily tracked. So, state officials must restart mass testing sites that operated early in the pandemic, utilizing potential locations at Stony Brook University and Jones Beach for drive-thru testing, and bringing in the National Guard if necessary. Hospital systems like Northwell Health can assist, but only as much as resources permit. State officials said Monday they will add one new testing site in Nassau County, but didn't provide specifics. That must be just the beginning.

This is yet another difficult moment in a series of such moments. Expanding testing is only part of the response. Masking and being vaccinated and boosted remain key.

The combination of the holiday season and the increase in COVID cases has led to an enormous rise in demand for testing that won't abate anytime soon. To meet that demand, federal and state officials must do what government rarely manages: Act quickly.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.