WAYNE, NJ – Tuesday was the fifteenth day of testing at the Passaic County COVID-19 screening facility at William Paterson University, and the day was proving to be a long one. The facility was closed the day before due to torrential rain that fell upon Wayne and kept most at home.
Tuesday morning’s sky held ribbons of clouds that were tinged with pink before the sun came up. The beauty of the sky did not foretell what was coming: A storm of patients, sick and fearful who had already begun to line up for coronavirus testing.
Saturday, the facility tested 609 residents. Sunday, the facility was closed for Easter and Monday’s rain put testing on hold again. Everyone knew Tuesday would be a big day.
The campus at William Paterson University is only this quiet in the summer when the dorms are empty and there are just a few students who come for summer courses. The last few weeks, the campus had been a ghost town until Passaic County came in force with their mass-testing plan and repopulated the school.
Orange cones loop back-and-forth providing direction for the cars that arrived before the sun came up and soon became a twisting, looping snake that was more than three hundred cars long before the testing even began.
“It’s been a life changing time for me,” said Passaic County Administrator Anthony De Nova, as he drove next to the line of cars in a golf cart. He is in charge of the entire operation, and his responsibility is a large one.
“I drive past the cars each morning and I see people’s faces filled with such despair. They have their masks on. You know they’re sick. They look back at you, and you can see the pleading in their eyes: ‘Please help me.’”
“It’s tough,” he said and began to choke up. “I get emotional every time I think of it.” The County Administrator had to take a moment to calm. “I hope nobody has to live through this again.”
Testing is essential to identify those who are positive for the virus, then to quarantine them and everyone they have been in contact with recently. It’s one of the biggest parts of the plan to contain the very contagious virus and slow the number of cases.
This one mass-testing site in Passaic County is unique in the state in that it is run almost entirely by volunteers. “In this county, we only have one healthcare system, and that’s St. Joe’s,” said De Nova. “I couldn’t expect them to just give me the help. They are already busting at the seams.”
“Other counties have hospitals that are donating services and professionals, but we are doing it purely on the backs of everyday citizens,” the Administrator said.
Dr. Charlene Gungil is the Public Health Officer for the County. She is integral to both the genesis of the testing facility and its daily operations. But she knows that it’s the volunteers that make the place run.
“Volunteers are critical to this site,” she said. “County staff are really the skeleton crew, but the real meat of the organization are the volunteers. We have volunteers at the reception booths who take the information, enter data and talk to the people in the cars. We have them down at the testing site where they are swabbing, timing the swabs and observing the people to assess their health at the moment. We also have volunteers down at the tents preparing additional Personal Protective Equipment for tomorrow’s crew. Even the traffic is controlled by CERT volunteers, which is the Community Emergency Response Team.”
“Every step of the process, we need volunteers,” she added. “It is very critical to our operation that we have volunteers ready, willing and able to serve.”
In the beginning, when the county first called for volunteers, over 200 people signed up, but not everyone shows up every day, and, according to Dr. Gungil: “We keep getting the same ones that come over and over, like Doc Baker, who has been here every day.”
Doc Baker is Dr. Abubakr Alfaouri who got his nickname 'Doc Baker' in medical school. He’s been referred to as a true hero by Dr. Gungil.
“Every day he’s here,” she said. “Some days he’s here a long time. Saturday, he was here from 7:00am to 3:00pm. On his feet, in the cold. Supervising the people who are doing the swabbing. That’s a commitment that we are just so grateful for.”
“It’s life-altering for me to see people putting others before themselves to volunteer here,” added De Nova. “A lot of them have other jobs. One woman is a nurse practitioner, and she says: ‘I need to be out of here at 1:30 because I have to start my other job at 2:00.’ So, she starts here at 7:00 in the morning and works till 1:30 then has to go to her other job and who knows how long she has to work there. And, then gets up to do it again tomorrow.”
“They’re just incredible,” said De Nova in real reverence. “They truly are heroes. I know that word gets thrown around a lot, but for these people, there is no other way to say it. It really is true. It really is true.”
This morning, these heroes were treated to breakfast by FLAG of Greater Wayne who arranged for Manhattan Bagels to bring coffee, orange juice, bagels with a variety of spreads as well as sandwiches.
The volunteers had changed into their hazmat suits, taped their gloves to their sleeves, their booties to the bottom of their pant legs and chatted amongst themselves with coffee or juice in hand, waiting for the work to begin.
Akram Kwaik owns Manhattan Bagels on Hamburg Turnpike in Wayne. “Donating is not something new to us,” he told TAPinto Wayne later that day. “It’s just a way to give back to the community that we are a part of.”
“I know a couple of the volunteers personally,” said Kwaik. “My brother-in-law, Samir Damous, is one of them, so I know what they go through. It’s putting that suit on and working all day and putting themselves on the frontline of the fight against the spread of this virus.”
According to De Nova, when the facility first opened up, the worry was about having a steady supply of testing kits. That is no longer a problem. The next worry was about having enough Personal Protection Equipment to keep volunteers safe. The State has provided Passaic County everything they’ve requested.
Now the only worry is that there won’t continue to be enough volunteers to keep the site up and running while the State and County crest the wave of the pandemic and ride the slope back down the curve.
The County Administrator says more volunteers are essential. No medical experience is needed. “There is a job for everyone,” said De Nova, who hopes fervently that more people sign up.
To volunteer, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.