Officials in Newark on Monday debuted an effort to test the city’s entire homeless population — some 2,200 men and women, as well as the hundreds of staff members at 21 shelters in the city — in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19 both within a vulnerable population and beyond.
Armed with a less invasive nasal swab test that reduces both the discomfort for those being tested and the potential risk of infection to those gathering the specimen, officials unveiled the program at an airport hotel that’s home to 200 homeless men and women, where dozens volunteered to undergo the process.
Dr. Mark Wade, director of the city’s Health and Community Wellness department, said the homeless are among the three most vulnerable groups — right behind the elderly and those in nursing homes or with underlying illnesses — whose living circumstances pose special challenges to the effort to control the viral outbreak.
“They are directly in line with the virus, many times unknowingly,” Wade said. “And also, [they are] potential vectors, meaning they are infected and can spread it to others because they’re not sheltering in place.”
Pioneering mass testing
Wade maintained that Newark’s effort is pioneering.
“To my knowledge, there’s not another city in the United States that’s committed to test their entire homeless population on a mass testing effort,” he said.
For the expanded testing, the city is relying on a test developed by LabCorp, one of the nation’s major firms that’s doing laboratory analysis of testing for COVID-19, as well as other pathogens.
“They have come out with a new, what we call, anterior swab,” Wade said. “The swab no longer has to go all the way back through the nose into the throat, but just right at the entrance of the nose so it’s less painful for the resident, it’s quicker to do, and it lessens the chance of infection for those doing the testing because the person is less likely to sneeze or cough.”
Wade said results can be turned around in 24 to 48 hours. Residents who test positive must leave the hotel. If they’re asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, they can go to quarantine at another hotel paid for by the city or to a hospital if their symptoms are severe.
Wade said public health law restricts what the city can do, which adds to the difficulties of testing a population often described as resistant to coming off the street and accepting any help.
“We cannot force someone to stay at a location legally,” he said.
Newark and several partners also are gathering information for potential contact tracing among those who test positive. He acknowledged that the process is more difficult when the population is mobile.
“Those that they come into contact with won’t necessarily be where they were the last time they contacted them, if you will,” he said. “So, for example, those who enter in and around Penn Station, that might be coming in and out of our city, it’s going to require an extra effort. But we’re up to the task, because that’s what’s required in order for us to flatten this curve and get a hold on the spread of this virus.”
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration said the city is spending about $2 million on housing the homeless, and testing and medically supervising those without permanent addresses.
“Those with the greatest need deserve the greatest amount of attention because everyone is important,” Wade said.
Aligning with statewide measures
Though being conducted by the city, Newark’s new testing effort aligns with expanded testing being implemented by state officials, also focusing on vulnerable populations, like incarcerated inmates, residents of the state’s veterans homes, and those in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
During his briefing Monday on the COVID-19 crisis, Gov. Phil Murphy — who has frequently talked about the importance of more testing as an antecedent to easing his stay-at-home orders — said the state is figuring out a game plan for using supplies received from the federal government at the end of last week that allow for a doubling of the rate of testing.
“We are right now […] going through the rankings of where we’re going to deploy those resources,” Murphy said. “That’s being developed as we speak. Communities of particular exposure are our highest […] priorities.”