SOMERVILLE, NJ - When the COVID-19 pandemic began its spread throughout New Jersey last month, the Somerset County Department of Health was prepped and ready to respond, perhaps more than others because it was "battle-tested.".

Just 4 months before the first coronavirus cases were reported in New Jersey, the department was pressed into crisis management mode after confirmation that an employee of the Shop Rite supermarket in Somerville who had worked in the deli department was diagnosed with Hepatitis A, a rare and highly-contagious liver disease.

The department scrambled over the next few days to create patient protocols and to gather adequate supplies of vaccine. 

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Over a three-day period shortly after Election Day, the health department staff put in long hours to handle the long lines of people that showed up outside their office on Warren Street in Somerville, with the lines wending their way through an adjacent plaza and parking lots.

After three days, the department had administered more than 1,800 vaccinations.

There were no other reported cases of Hepatitis-A.

The county health department mobilized again earlier this month in response to the COVID-19 crisis,

Monday will begin the third week of administering COVID-19 tests at a pop-up facility set up in a parking lot at Raritan Valley Community College. Tests will be given April 27, April 29 and May 1 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. each day.

The site is being run in partnership with Hunterdon County.

Since April 16, the staff has taken 477 samples from residents of Somerset and Hunterdon County who were sent to the facility by their individual doctors, having shown possible symptoms of COVID-19. Those samples are tested and returned to the doctors who then decide whether to quarantine or send their patient to the hospital.

Dr. Namitha Reddy, an epidemiologist and director of the Somerset County Health Department, is impressed with the efficiency of the assembled medical professionals, some of whom work for her, and the volunteers who have stepped up to assist, as well as local police departments, the Somerset County Sheriff's Office and the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office in addition to the county Office of Emergency Management.

Without embellishment, Reddy refers to the pandemic as a

once-in-a-lifetime event

Reddy credits the Federal Emergency Management Agency and funds from the federal government made available in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9-11 for educating today's health care workers. 

"These people are all professionals; there's some understanding of what it takes," Reddy said. "This is what we train for. The emergency preparedness funds given to us allows us to prepare for situations like this," she added. "We've adapted what we've already been doing, like drive-through flu clinics, it's not something that is new to us.

"This is what we work towards, the plan is in place, but we can also think outside the box and modify; we've never tested people in a car," she said.

"There are pieces that need to come together still, but I could not have asked for a smoother flow."

Reddy anticipates the testing will continue beyond this week; supplies of Personal Protective Equipment - PPEs - are adequate for now. The department has been drawing down on its stockpile of disposable masks, gowns and gloves, all of which must be disposed of after administering each test; the health staff must then gear up with fresh PPEs before administering the next test.

Testing is free of charge, and available only to Hunterdon and Somerset county residents, ages 5 and older. Priority is given to those who are exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus, and residents must have a valid doctor's prescription, ID and an appointment to receive testing.

Patients must provide a copy of the prescription, either by bringing it with them to the testing site or by sending it via email in advance of the appointment. The written authorization can be sent to the Somerset County Department of Health at coronavirus@co.somerset.nj.us with the word Prescription in the subject line.

Patients must schedule an appointment for testing at https://somerset-hunterdon.adlabscovidtest.com or by calling 908-237-7150.