New Jersey’s third most populous city, among the most densely populated in the United States, did not set up a coronavirus testing site for residents as confirmed cases surged from hundreds to thousands.
Mayor Andre Sayegh initially pushed to get a testing site up and running at the Board of Health, but later backed off.
“We didn’t want to compete with the county. They were telling us about the scarcity of the test kits,” said Sayegh on Monday.
Passaic County and Paterson officials got in contact with Bio-Reference Laboratories to purchase tests. Both sides were trying to secure test kits that were in scarce supply in mid-to-late March.
Passaic County administrator Anthony DeNova intervened and told the mayor to back off. Several people familiar with the discussions said DeNova put strong pressure on the mayor to relent. Sayegh said DeNova made a “passionate plea,” urging him not to compete because the county needed the test kits. The mayor said he opted to promote the county test site for Paterson residents.
“All of our municipalities have been involved in the planning of our testing site from the start of the pandemic,” said Neela Mahbuba, public information officer for the county administrator’s office, on Monday afternoon.
Passaic County had its testing site running at the William Paterson University campus on March 25. County officials had looked at opening the testing site in Paterson, but could not because of logistical problems.
Paterson simply did not have a space that could accommodate a testing site. Some worried, from images that emerged from the Bergen County testing site, that as many as 500 cars could line up for testing.
“It wasn’t about the site. It was about the test kits,” said the mayor. He said a testing site could be assembled at the firehouse on McBride Avenue, where this month as many as 500 police and firefighters were tested for the virus through a private provider.
Paterson health officer Paul Persaud had proposed a plan to run a testing site in the parking lot of the Board of Health, according to two people familiar with the discussions. He pushed hard, according to the two people, but was sidelined.
“Soon after I learned that FEMA was setting up testing sites in two counties including Bergen County and not Passaic County, I was very concerned about Paterson with regards to population density and access to getting tested,” said Persaud on Monday. “So yes, we pursued testing and did preliminary work towards implementation.”
Paterson has 12 nurses on the payroll. It also had gowns and respirator masks. Much of its supply of N95 masks were later donated to healthcare workers battling the virus at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center. The hospital has been doing limited testing for its patients and employees.
The lack of a testing site in Paterson, one of the poorest cities in New Jersey, has meant lack of access for thousands of people.
“It’s a problem,” said councilman Luis Velez. He said many senior citizens, who are dying at a higher rate from Covid-19, lack cars and cannot drive to the testing site in nearby Wayne.
Velez, who represents the 5th Ward, has a large senior population, particularly in the Governor Paterson Towers on 20th Avenue. He said there are also many that do not drive or have a car to get themselves to William Paterson University.
Paterson also has a sizable undocumented immigrant community.
Several council members expressed their displeasure at the municipal response to the pandemic. Council president Maritza Davila has criticized the administration’s response. However, for weeks, Davila ignored the calls of councilman Michael Jackson and Velez to hold a Board of Health meeting.
Davila held an emergency City Council meeting on March 19 to discuss the response to the pandemic. She and her colleagues heard from business administrator Kathleen Long, chief of staff Della Fischer, health and human services director Oshin Castillo, and law director Farrah Irving, none of whom have any credentials or experience in public health, at the meeting.
Davila has held previous emergency meetings that were little more than venting sessions for council members. Ultimately, little or nothing of substance has ever emerged from her emergency meetings. Over the weekend, Davila relented and agreed to hold a meeting of the dormant Board of Health. Jackson has said a Board of Health meeting will allow the City Council to hear from health experts and determine a course of action.
Davila did not respond to a call for comment.
Council members will convene as the Board of Health at 5 p.m. today to discuss the city’s response to the pandemic.
Paterson had 2,812 infections and 64 deaths on Sunday.
“I want to re-visit testing in Paterson,” said the mayor. “I’m adamant about testing.”
Sayegh said the availability of test kits will allow the city to run a testing site. He wants to use rapid test kits.
The mayor, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the month, has beat the virus. He hopes to return to work tomorrow.
Jersey City has two testing sites — a drive-thru and a walk-in — for its residents. Newark has a testing site run by the Essex County government.
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