Staten Island has opened the city’s first drive-through testing center for people who suspect they might have contracted COVID-19.
“We'll see what kind of interest there is in testing, but I expect since we’re here in Staten Island, in New York City, we're going to get an enormous interest,” said Basil Seggos, the head of the Department of Environmental Conservation, who is in charge of setting up the temporary facility, using dozens of workers from various state agencies and the National Guard.
Ramping up testing is a key part of curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, and Governor Andrew Cuomo for weeks was clamoring for help from the federal government to expand testing. Currently, the state can test around 7,600 people per day. Testing identifies individual people who are ill so they can be treated, but, epidemiologically, it also tells the state where the biggest demands are and helps planners develop a response.
The new center in Staten Island, located in a parking lot on the state-run South Beach Psychiatric Center, features three 40- by 80-foot tents with walls on two sides and open ends. Around them are dozens of orange cones to corral drivers waiting in lines. When they get to the front, drivers pull into the tents two at a time, side by side. Drivers and passengers then briefly lower their windows – which they’re otherwise required to keep closed – and a nurse or technician outfitted in protective gear will swab their throats.
The samples are then labeled and sent to a nearby lab for testing. Drivers head home unless they or their passengers need immediate help. Emergency personnel and at least one physician are on site at all times, and Staten Island University Hospital is a block away.
The center will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. It will have about 150 people working full-time, drawn from different state agencies, and will be able to process 1,000 people a day. But people will need to make appointments before coming, by calling the state’s COVID-19 hotline 888-364-3065, and then wait two to three days for results.
“It’s not first-come, first-served – there’s a sign up process,” Seggos stressed. “People come prepared and with the right information, they present that to the check-in at the gate, get escorted into the facility, and then they’re put right into the right testing lane.”
The sign-up reduces the chance the center will be overwhelmed by the “worried well.” People must answer rudimentary questions before receiving an appointment to come in.
The center on Staten Island took about 24 hours to set up and is the third in the state, following ones in New Rochelle and at Jones Beach.
Around New York, thousands of state workers are being commandeered to work on COVID-19, regardless of what agency they work for. Seggos said disaster response – whether for a disease outbreak, flood or massive snowfall – is less about specific technical details and more about versatility.
“If people understand logistics and planning, if they understand management, let's put them in place first,” he said, “and then plug-and-play those with expertise.”