The City Council grilled officials from mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration on Tuesday night for their sudden scaling back of the city’s Covid-19 testing program.
Sayegh reduced testing from six days to two days a week despite surging Covid-19 cases and deaths. He cited lack of funding. Testing was previously funded by federal Cares Act dollars.
Under questioning, Sayegh administration officials revealed the scaling back of testing occurred contrary to public health recommendations.
“How many days do you think we should do [testing] at the city?” asked council president Flavio Rivera to the city’s health officer.
“If I had my way, I’d say seven days a week,” replied health officer Paul Persaud. “The more tests we can have, the better.”
Persaud said he ran his testing program six days a week and gave his staff one day for rest.
“How is it you’re not the person making that decision? Who is? How do we have nonprofessionals making a decision that’s detrimental to the health of the public?” remarked councilman Michael Jackson.
Business administrator Kathleen Long said the Sayegh administration consulted with Persaud before reducing testing for residents.
“We’re cutting testing sites, and it does not match the recommendation from the health officer,” added councilwoman Lilisa Mimms.
Long claimed there were “numerous conversations” with the health officer before the decision was made to cut testing.
“We have to live in the reality that we’re faced with. I do wish that there was more funding that allowed us to continue exactly as we did,” said Long.
Rivera raised doubts about Long and Sayegh’s argument about lack of funding.
“You have actually created a surplus because a lot of the salaries of the staff that we budget for is being reimbursed by the Cares Act,” said Rivera.
Persaud and his team’s salaries for much of 2020 can be billed to the Cares Act. Without the pandemic, their salaries would have had to come from the municipal budget.
Long gave a convoluted answer. She suggested the salary savings were shifted to fund overtime for police and firefighters.
Paterson was allocated $13.7 million in Cares Act funds.
The city is also seeking $1.2 million in payroll reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Long.
“But none of those applications have moved. So, we might include some of those in the Cares Act submission,” said Long.
“If you’re able to now charge that $1.2 million that initially was not part of the $13 million that means you have not spent the whole $13 million,” said Rivera.
Long’s remark suggested the city might be billing two grants for the same expenses.
“You can’t bill two grants at the same time,” said Rivera.
Long took exception and said, “We do not do that here in Paterson.”
“I hope not,” remarked Rivera.
Long said the entire $13.7 million in Cares Act funds was spent within the December 30, 2020 deadline.
Non-governmental testing sites
Sayegh has said there are plenty of non-governmental testing sites for residents. He has some doctors running private testing site under the city’s banner. Fire chief Brian McDermott has been overseeing the non-governmental sites. But some council members and residents have complained about severe delays in getting test results from those sites.
“We know there’s been problems with those sites. They are making a lot of money on the backs of Patersonians, and they’re not providing the service that they have to provide,” said councilman Alex Mendez.
McDermott said a lab used by a non-governmental site was failing to provide results within 72 hours. He said that lab was fired by the non-governmental entity. Mendez wondered why the fire chief is overseeing the sites. He wanted the Division of Health to take over oversight of the non-governmental testing sites.
Mendez worried residents would lack access to testing as many did during the early part of the pandemic.
Sayegh bungled testing at the beginning of the pandemic, leaving many residents without access. Paterson did not have a testing site for residents until May, weeks after the pandemic had peaked. He was promoting the Passaic County testing site at William Paterson University in Wayne.
“Everybody was struggling in Paterson. We have a lot of Patersonians that do not drive. We had thousands of people who couldn’t get testing,” said Mendez recalling the situation that unfolded in the first few months of the pandemic.
Mobile testing was a fix to that problem.
“The whole intent of the program is to increase access for the population,” said Persaud.
Some council members grew frustrated as the administration failed to propose a solution to the problem it created.
“The administration is running rogue making decisions that’s detrimental to everyone,” said Jackson. 443 people died of Covid-19 in Paterson. It set an all-time daily record for infections in late December.
Persaud told council members he had been communicating with LabCorp to see if they would be willing to bill the federal government for tests provided to uninsured residents. Currently, the city picks up the expense. He said the firm is willing to bill insurance providers and the Cares Act for tests.
Each test is $100. “If we take that out of the equation, I don’t see the need to reduce the days tremendously,” said Rivera.
“I agree. This is breaking news to me,” said Long. Restoring additional days of testing is “absolutely doable” if the city does not have to pay the price for the tests, she said.
Long did not outline a plan to restore testing beyond two days a week at the meeting.
“I still want to know what came out of tonight’s meeting. We met for a few hours to hear, discuss some things, pontificate here, get some things off of our chest. This looks more like a counseling session,” said Jackson.
Staffing cost to run mobile testing for a week is less than $10,000, according to officials.
Rivera wanted the administration to devise a plan to restore testing and provide it to the council. The council also serves as the Board of Health.
“I don’t want any excuses. This testing needs to continue,” said Rivera.
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Updated 10:05 a.m.