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October 16, 2020 - 5:13pm

NYS begins distribution of COVID-19 testing kits but some questions remain unanswered

New York State’s allocation of 400,000 COVID-19 testing kits provides a much-awaited boost to municipalities, but still doesn’t answer the question of who will be responsible for administering these tests to students and others in need of rapid coronavirus laboratory analysis.

A pair of executive directors of state organizations issued a joint statement to that effect earlier this week, and their thoughts were supported today by Paul Pettit, director of the Genesee & Orleans County Health Departments.

Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the New York State Association of County Health Officials, and Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, applauded the distribution of the testing kits, calling it “a welcome step toward the goal of implementing a robust and successful school testing program in counties implementing the state’s Cluster Action Initiative.”

But the availability of these materials isn’t enough, they said, posing the unresolved question: “Who will provide the staff and resources necessary to administer the tests?”

Their statement asserted that many county health departments have numerous school districts in their jurisdictions and not enough licensed and trained staff to handle the workload.

“Test kits are just one part of a much larger array of essential resources that must be deployed to make this work,” they said. “Additionally, we have significant concerns about the capacity of our communities to implement this plan. Local health departments have been working in concert with community-based organizations since the pandemic began, and many of these organizations are at, or even beyond, full capacity.”

Pettit said he agrees with “the essence of the press release … as we are encouraged by the long overdue movement to provide rapid testing in our counties. As we have been sharing since the beginning of COVID in our communities, we have lacked adequate and affordable/free testing for our residents.”

The provision of these machines and kits solves part of the problem, Pettit said, “but leaves many unanswered questions around the capacity and ancillary support to provide them.”

“We again find ourselves with new testing requirements pushed upon us (20 percent of the school population testing if in a 'yellow zone’) without a full understanding of the details of the new requirements and a lack of support and capacity to meet them,” he said. “We have reached out to our community partners and health care providers to discuss the best approach to receiving and implementing a county testing program that will provide the free access points that we’ve been seeking.”

Pettit added that his agency is talking with school officials about coronavirus testing requirements.

“Ultimately, our goal is to have this free rapid testing available from many locations for county residents who need testing for any variety of reasons, including school-based symptom screening, state required testing to visit long-term care facilities, and symptomatic individuals.”

Ravenhall and Acquario are calling upon the state to provide financial support to carry out its directive.

“We cannot rely on local partnerships alone to meet our needs,” they stated. “Any plan to implement robust testing in our schools must include adequate state resources -- and withholding funds from localities will only make this monumental task even more difficult.”

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that schools in the state’s precautionary “yellow zones” will receive the rapid testing kits, with the 400,000 kits being the first batch.

Starting today, “yellow zone” schools must test a fifth of the student population, staff members and teachers on weekly basis. Schools in “orange” and “red” zones are required to teach students through remote learning only. Currently, none of the schools in Genesee and Orleans counties are in any of the aforementioned zones, Pettit said.

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