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WTF? Carless New Yorkers Are Being Sent To, And Turned Away From, Drive-Thru Test Sites

11:16 AM EDT on April 14, 2020

A COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Brooklyn. Photo: Jeff Coltin via Twitter

[Update below] New Yorkers without cars are on their own — or have to put someone else at risk — if they get sent to a coronavirus drive-thru testing site, according to people who have experienced the problem.

Sarah Clyne Sunderg, a New York City-based writer and editor, reported that a car-free friend who suspected she had the virus was told to "take an Uber" to the new drive-thru facility "in the Sears parking lot in Flatbush" — potentially exposing another person (the driver) to the virus.

Sundberg's friend, who requested anonymity (and the pronoun they), confirmed Sundberg's tweets, and shared more detail from their conversation with a state Department of Health operator.

After a doctor recommended a test, Sundberg's friend was eventually connected to the state Health Department, which directed them to the Flatbush testing site — but the only advice the health representative had for the carless New Yorker was to pay hundreds of dollars to get tested through a primary care physician (which they don't have) or take a cab to the testing site.

And in a follow-up call with the DOH, another representative told Sundberg's friend that they'd need to stick their head out the window during the drive — you know, like a dog.

"I spoke to someone who told me that there were no walk-in testing sites and that I could get an Uber to take me to the appointment I already had," Sundberg's friend told Streetsblog. "I said that this seemed irresponsible. The rep then said that if I rolled down all the windows in the car and tried to stick my head out of the window it should be fine. I responded that this was not an option."

Sundberg's friend said that they eventually just gave up on getting a test through the state.

Reporter Jeff Coltin tweeted that he witnessed a man being turned away by a state trooper at the same drive-thru testing site in Flatbush this weekend. And "perpetual grad student" Grace Mosely tweeted that a friend of hers experienced the same treatment at a drive-thru site somewhere else the city.

Spencer Kiernan McGrath, Moseley's friend, confirmed her tweet and shared details of his own ordeal getting a test at the drive-thru site. According to McGrath, a phone message from the state Health Department informed him that he had an appointment at the Flatbush testing site, but the message didn't inform him that he would need a car to access it.

And he was clearly not alone in his confusion, since McGrath said that a state trooper at the site entrance told him he wasn't the first person who had tried to get in on foot.

"He seemed annoyed, but not with me," said McGrath. "He told me that I was not the first person to ask him that day if I needed a car, and that if I wanted to get tested, I would have to get a cab or an Uber and ride through."

McGrath said that he was able to find a willing Uber driver, whom he called a saint, and that the guard on the premises said anyone in a car on at the site was entitled to a test, which the driver declined. The hour-long "cab ride" wasn't even lucrative for the Uber driver, who risked his life for the $8.75 fare.

"The app has no idea what happened. Yes, we can take care of the driver through tip (I did), but it's wild that he put his life at risk and doesn't even get to charge the person beyond the $8.75," said McGrath.

Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, didn't comment on whether employees were telling people with coronavirus to put cab drivers at risk, but he did say that the state was not working to find testing sites for New Yorkers who didn't own cars.

"New Yorkers without a vehicle should contact their family physician or local Federally Qualified Health Center about testing availability," said Hammond.

When drive-thru test sites were first rolled out by the state, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio said that the administration was "committed to making these drive-thru testing sites as accessible as possible for New Yorkers in need, and will have more details to share in the coming days." That commitment has been replaced by yet another instance of the city and state governments not coordinating their efforts. Several de Blasio administration spokespeople said that any issues with the state-run testing sites was an issue for New York State.

Public officials have talked about the need for mass testing among other factors to make sure that the coronavirus doesn't flare up and again devastate people's lives and jobs once social distancing guidelines are loosened. But in a city like New York, where only 45 percent of households own cars, the focus on car-based testing doesn't speak to local concerns.

Last week, Gov. Cuomo announced that three walk-in testing sites would open in Jamaica, Brownsville and the South Bronx, but it's unclear if any have opened (the Brooklyn Paper reported that the state is still looking for a Brownsville site; there's been no media coverage of the two other locations).

In South Korea, government officials were able to build walk-in testing pods so people without cars could be rapidly tested, but there's no sense of what New York's walk-in clinics will look like.

Sam Raskin, a local reporter who witnessed the scene at a private hospital's walk-in clinic, described process as one that made him understand why people prefer to get coronavirus tests in cars.

You're sitting or standing with a bunch of sick people, many who have coronavirus, for at least an hour. If you don't have it when you get to the hospital/ tent, you might have it by the time you leave!

— Sam Raskin (@samraskinz) April 13, 2020

In the tent at Maimonides where you wait to get tested, there’s no way to remain six feet away from people

— Sam Raskin (@samraskinz) April 13, 2020

Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for the mayor's office, told Streetsblog that city-run test sites will be "run out of hospitals or hospital-adjacent facilities to ensure they’re accessible to everyone." And Cohen disputed that the testing areas will be crowded because they are appointment-only.

UPDATE, 4/17, 2:45pm: On Friday, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health gave an update on the locations of the three promised walk-in coronavirus testing locations and when they opened:

Tres Puentes Community Health Center
271 East 138th Street, Bronx, opened 4/14

First Presbyterian Church Parking Lot
89-90 164 Street, Queens, opening today 4/17

Brownsville Multi-Service Family Health Center
592 Rockaway Ave, Brooklyn, opened 4/16

To make a required appointment for a test, New Yorkers can call the state's COVID-19 hotline at 888-364-3065.

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