Five months after Covid-19 cases peaked in Paterson, mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration is just now setting up a mobile testing unit.
Municipal officials are considering awarding a $750,000 contract to LabCorp and another $30,000 contract to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center for coronavirus testing.
Sayegh was first in New Jersey to announce a mobile testing initiative in May, when Paterson saw dozens of new cases each day, but his administration was slow to act as Passaic County and Bergen County governments rolled out their own mobile testing efforts.
“We were focused on the existing sites but now we are preparing for the transition,” said Sayegh on Wednesday morning when asked about the delay in implementing the mobile testing unit.
Municipal officials said City Hall slow walked the process to award the contracts.
“Our mobile unit needed some fixing before it went out,” said health and human services director Oshin Castillo-Cruz. She said the vehicle had some mechanical problems that were fixed. The city had to identify funds to pay for the repairs, she said.
Castillo-Cruz said the city had to put out a request for proposal. Four vendors submitted proposals, according to municipal records. She said the city also had to put together a plan for the mobile testing unit.
“Just the process took longer than anyone had expected it to,” said Castillo-Cruz.
“There is a process in place to advance COVID-19 testing to be spearheaded by the Paterson Division of Health. Testing will be truly mobile and different from everything else that is currently being offered,” added health officer Paul Persaud.
Persaud had wanted to get the mobile testing unit moving in early June.
Testing has been a persistent problem for the Sayegh administration. The city failed to set up a government-run testing site in late March. After criticism, the mayor tapped private doctors to set up ostensibly free testing sites for residents. First such testing site opened at the old Barnert Hospital in early May.
Subsequently, the mayor had his chief of staff Della Fischer spearhead an abortive effort to set up testing sites. Four testing sites opened that were run by Sunrise Diagnostics. The sites closed 48 hours after opening because of staffing and other problems.
Councilman Michael Jackson had recommended Sunrise Diagnostics to the city. Fischer at a public meeting blamed Jackson for recommending the company. Jackson in turn said the Sayegh administration should have vetted the firm before hiring it.
Municipal officials had Vestibula Diagnostics take over the Sunrise Diagnostics sites. Officials later said Vestibula Diagnostics overcharged the city for the tests.
Sayegh hired Fischer in January. His announcement of her hiring did not mention any public health experience.
In response to a records request from the Paterson Times, municipal officials said Fischer’s resume is not on file with the city. Sayegh did not provide a response as to why his chief of staff’s resume is not on file with the city. It’s not clear whether she submitted a resume before Sayegh hired her.
Sayegh also had Fischer, business administrator Kathleen Long, law director Farrah Irving, and Castillo-Cruz, none of whom have any public health experience, lead the initial response to the pandemic.
Castillo-Cruz had a year shadowing the Passaic County Human Services director before she was hired by Sayegh. She provided creative prevention advice to residents. Early in the pandemic, she told residents not to touch their ears to avoid getting the virus.
“If you’re touching your ears, you’re touching your face,” said Castillo-Cruz on Wednesday when asked about her questionable advice.
No health experts have told people not to touch their ears.
In August, Castillo-Cruz attended an outdoor gathering at The Yard in Haledon. Pictures showed many of the attendees were in close proximity to each other without masks. She said she had her mask on at all times except when eating at the event.
In late July, Castillo-Cruz claimed the city’s contact tracers were certified by the state. No such certification exists.
“They pass the training and the test assessment,” said Castillo-Cruz when asked about her reference to a non-existent state certificate.
Contact tracing has been the one bright spot in the city’s response to the pandemic. Health officials had dealt with two communicable disease scares last year which prepared them for the new coronavirus.
The city’s contact tracing program has been touted as a national model.
Even now, the Sayegh administration’s response remains faltering. On August 2, police dragged their feet in responding to a large party, more than 100 people, at 70 Essex Street.
Councilman Luis Velez had to call the New Jersey State Police and the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office to respond after police took several hours. Eventually, the party was broken up by police and the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office.
Despite a statewide mask mandate groups of people can be seen without masks in streets. Some businesses have employees serving customers without masks.
The number of daily infections has dropped in July and August. Some days, the city’s daily infection number stood at 1. But cases have climbed to double digits for much of the past two weeks.
On September 2, the city had 11 new infections. At the peak of the pandemic in April Paterson reported 262 infections in a single day.
343 people have died of Covid-19 in Paterson.
The contract for the mobile testing was presented to the City Council on Tuesday night. Councilman Al Abdelaziz said the item was pulled from the agenda and sent to committee, which will likely delay it by another two weeks.
Abdelaziz said the administration did not submit the measure to the health and human services committee before it went on the agenda.
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