Just weeks after the Division of Health began administering Covid-19 tests to residents using its mobile unit, mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration reduced the city’s testing budget by $150,000.
Business administrator Kathleen Long told Division of Health officials in late October the city’s Covid-19 testing budget had been reduced by 20 percent, according to emails obtained by the Paterson Times through a records request.
“Remember, the budget is no longer 750K but 600K,” Long said in an email dated October 19, 2020 to health officer Paul Persaud and division accountant Robert Ardis.
Sayegh was copied in the email, records show.
Sayegh did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Members of the City Council, majority of whom have publicly said they have no confidence in the mayor, said they were not aware of the reduction.
Council members approved a contract “not to exceed” $750,000 to LabCorp in September 2020 to ramp up testing in the city ahead of the second wave of cases.
“I think it’s very typical,” said councilman Michael Jackson. “They have no reason, no rationale behind where they’re putting the money.”
Paterson was hit hard by the pandemic. In 2020, the city had 600 more deaths than normal, suggesting Covid-19 claimed more lives in Paterson than what’s reflected in the official death tally.
“I think he put people at risk,” said councilman Luis Velez, who survived Covid-19.
Council members criticized Sayegh throughout the pandemic over his response to the deadly virus.
Sayegh ignored the recommendations of health officials and did not set up Covid-19 testing in New Jersey’s third most populous city in the early part of the pandemic. He explained last April that he did not want to compete with the Passaic County government for scarce test kits. At the time both Newark and Jersey City had local testing sites for their residents.
Passaic County operated a testing site out of William Paterson University. Councilman Alex Mendez, who was giving thousands of masks in the early months of the pandemic, has publicly said lack of local testing site left thousands of Paterson residents without access to Covid-19 testing.
Sayegh faced criticism from the City Council for failing to set up testing for residents. He then made some attempts to set up testing sites by partnering with private doctors and hiring a private company.
A private doctor, Richard Afanonja of FastMed Urgent Care, opened a testing site at the old Barnert Hospital on May 4, 2020. Residents formed long lines for walk-up testing. By that time cases in the first wave had already peaked in Paterson.
Later in May, Sayegh hired Sunrise Diagnostics to run four testing sites. After a day, half of the sites had to close because of staffing and other problems prompting the city to sever its ties with the firm.
Sayegh’s team stated the firm “overpromised and underdelivered.” Testing woes continued until October 5, 2020, when the Division of Health began testing residents throughout Paterson using its mobile unit.
Amid the biggest surge in cases since the start of the pandemic, Sayegh scaled back mobile testing from six days to two days a week in late December 2020 citing expiration of federal Cares Act funds. Weeks later, Sayegh reversed the decision after the health officer worked out a deal with LabCorp to bill the federal government directly for the tests.
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