NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—After just over three months in action, the county government’s COVID-19 testing site at the A. Chester Redshaw Elementary School is being shut down to allow the school to re-open in September, despite concerns that in-person classes will help spread the disease.
The announcement came not from Middlesex County, but from city Mayor James Cahill in his AM radio “COVID-19 report” for August 6, the day after the site closed for good.
“The county will be breaking down that site,” Cahill told the audience, saying the school system needed to prepare the building for re-opening.
“We are looking at other sites. It should be the week after next,” Cahill said. “So, stay tuned.”
County officials did not respond to questions from New Brunswick Today about when or where the government would restore a testing site in the city.
There are other places to get tested in New Brunswick, including the city’s two hospitals and the Eric B. Chandler Health Center, but only if you are admitted as a patient. The state website also advertises an at-home testing kit available through a private company called LabCorp.
Middlesex County’s elected leaders, known as “the Freeholders,” did not respond to concerns about the closure of the Redshaw site during their August 6 meeting, silencing this reporter when he began to address the dismantling of the COVID-19 testing site in New Brunswick.
The county’s press officials did not respond to multiple emails with questions about the move, one that leaves a parking lot in Piscataway as the only county-run COVID-19 testing location through at least August 24.
“We have to get Redshaw School prepared to re-open,” said Cahill, who is the boss of at least one Freeholder, his staffer Claribel Azcona-Barber.
“There’s half a dozen to a dozen sites that the county is now taking a look at,” the Mayor said, adding that it would take between one week and ten days for a new testing site to be established.
Since April 30, when the Redshaw site opened, Hub City residents had opportunities to get tested for the virus in a location easily accessible for city residents without cars.
The first day, some 162 county residents showed up for their scheduled appointments and got tested successfully. But since then the county has ignored or denied requests for information about the number of tests administered.
County officials including Assistant County Counsel Alessandra Baldini and multiple county spokespersons also failed to answer questions about the total number of tests conducted at the four different sites run by the county.
Baldini cited a state law, the 2005 Emergency Health Powers Act, as the reason for the secrecy.
“Please be advised that pursuant to N.J.S.A. 26:13-26, the requested records are not considered a public or government record, and therefore, are exempt from disclosure under [the Open Public Records Act] and common law,” wrote Baldini. “Thus, your request is denied.”
Some of the legislators who passed that law, including State Senator Joseph Vitale, have proposed overturning the section that Middlesex County is using to keep the information from the public.
The “walk-up” location came about only after this reporter and other city residents spoke to the county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders, begging them for a walkable testing site just as the pandemic began to reach its peak.
Originally, the county had utilized the Edison and South Brunswick Motor Vehicle Commission inspection stations. Those locations have given way to the one in New Brunswick, and another in Piscataway.
The Edison MVC had the distinction of being the first testing site open to the public to offer a new innovation developed at Rutgers University’s RUCDR Infinite Biologics.
RUCDR runs a lab in Piscataway that can process samples of human saliva and determine whether the person is infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, and Middlesex County was selected as the first place to roll out the new testing on a wide scale in April.
A joint venture between RUCDR, Utah-based Spectrum Solutions, and Accurate Diagnostic Labs, a company based in South Plainfield, their test has the advantage of being painless and less of a production than others which require someone to suit up in protective equipment and insert a swab into the patient’s nose.
Instead, the Rutgers service requires just .5 mL of a person’s spit to work, and Rutgers officials say it’s more accurate than other tests.
“The saliva test does look like it’s better than the nose and mouth sampling,” said Brian Strom, the Chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, told the audience at Governor Phil Murphy’s press briefing on April 23.
Strom, an epidemiologist who Rutgers pays at least $777,037.11 a year to run the school’s sizable medical school, said that the university lab would soon be able to process and test 10,000 samples a day in Piscataway.
Strom also announced plans to roll the tests out, initially to some state-run facilities and every employee at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, including those employed by Rutgers and other institutions.
Three months later, on July 27, Murphy announced the RUCDR operation would has expanded to process 30,000 tests per day.
“Proud to announce that RUCDR Infinite Biologics is providing – daily – 30,000 of its rapid-response saliva-based coronavirus tests to our broad-based testing initiatives,” Murphy said. “Having these tests means we now have 30,000 tests a day, and they come with a 48-hour turnaround.”
But not everything that officials stated has come to pass. The “48-hour turnaround” has been much quicker that what locals say they have experienced, and “walk-up testing” using the saliva-based method only came to one city in the county, not the two that Strom had claimed it would.
“Walk-ups will open next week in New Brunswick and Perth Amboy,” Strom told the audience on April 23, but the Perth Amboy site never materialized.
Repeated inquiries to Rutgers were forwarded to Middlesex County, who said they had no plans to deliver on Strom’s promise of walk-up saliva-based testing in Perth Amboy, and they would let us know if that changed.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.