NEWARK, NJ — Public health workers dressed head to toe in protective gear scurried around outside Branch Brook Park Roller Rink on Wednesday, a sight that’s becoming familiar around New Jersey’s largest city as it rolls out aggressive measures to expand testing to as many of its 280,000 residents as possible.
The Branch Brook location is the first public, city-funded walk- and drive-thru location in Newark, which began testing its vulnerable senior population and New Housing Authority Residents in the past two weeks. On Monday, officials announced plans to test the city’s entire homeless population were underway.
Mayor Ras Baraka said Wednesday that while his ambition is to test a “couple thousand” people a day as his administration strives to reopen the city, there simply aren’t enough test kits to reach as many people as he feels is necessary.
“At the end of the day, we just don’t have the resources to test 280,000 people in the city. Most of our money is either city (funding) or it’s coming from subsidized funding through the county from the CARES Act,” Barka said. “We’re going to test as many people as we can, that’s why we’re testing the most vulnerable folks first.”
The Branch Brook site was open to residents with insurance who were symptomatic and had a physician referral, but in the coming days and weeks that will expand to those without insurance and those who are asymptomatic. More than 200 residents were expected by foot and car on Tuesday.
The city is also working with Rutgers to acquire the new saliva tests, which would also mean less labor at the sites and safer sample collection for workers, Baraka said.
Newark is funding its testing endeavors through its own funds and the monies supplied by the county through the federal CARES Act, a relief package meant to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Direct funding goes only to cities with 500,000 or more residents, a requirement that no New Jersey city meets.
At $100 to $150 apiece, Baraka said the inflated cost of coronavirus test kits are a burden American cities shouldn’t have to shoulder on top of the tremendous losses they’re already experiencing.
“It’s certainly an expensive venture. It would seem to me that they should have used the Defense Production Act, purchased them at a reasonable price and distributed them to the states based on the number of people who are contracting the virus and the number of deaths, so we don’t have to go on the open market and vie for ourselves,” he said.
Newark, which consistently leads the state in COVID-19 cases and deaths at 6,014 and 460, respectively, is an example of what black and brown communities are facing nationwide. To reopen safely, the city has convened a strikeforce comprised of city leaders in public health, economic recovery, data collection, education, the arts, community engagement and communications.
About 200 newly trained contact tracers also began working this week to track down anyone who may have come in contact with those who test positive.
“A lot of these cities, especially cities like Newark, we’re just not ready. This virus has affected black and Latinos at disproportionate rates,” Baraka said. “If we don’t pay attention to what’s happening in these communities, then you’re sending people to slaughter.”