More than 600 tested on first day of popup center in Bergen

They came from across New Jersey, to sit in their cars in a line a mile long outside a makeshift, three-tent facility in Paramus to get tested for COVID-19 and perhaps get some answers in a changed world where uncertainty and worry have been the rule of the day.

Among them was Ronnie Figueroa Sr. from Essex County, who sat coughing in his vehicle hoping to be among those who landed a test during the first day of operations at the drive-through testing facility set up at Bergen Community College with the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“My back is hurting, every time I cough, I feel like I’m getting punched in the back of my ribs,” he said. “I came all the way from the City of Newark to come out here to get tested because that’s the only place I could find that was doing testing.”

During Friday’s version of his daily press briefing on the crisis — transplanted to Bergen Community College, near the parking lot where the test swabs had been taken from motorists — Gov. Phil Murphy said more than 600 specimens had been gathered before officials shut the operation down for the day. The testing was halted hours before the end of the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. window officials had established for the operation.

But Murphy and others said they were pleased with the number of specimens that had been collected on the first day of what will be an ongoing effort.

“We have a choice to be glass half empty or glass half full,” Murphy said. “The fact that we got 600 tests done on day one, with the amount of demand, is just extraordinary.”

“It’s not an easy task,” said state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli of the work involved in getting the temporary testing facility up and operating. “It worked. People got tested, over 600 people got tested. And it will continue until there’s no other people to test.”

Operations are scheduled to pick up again Saturday morning at 8, and officials said they would cap the tests conducted then to 350, to spread out the 2,500 test kits that FEMA has told them to expect each week.

Officials also said that a second FEMA test-specimen collection site — in the parking lot of the PNC Arts Center off the Garden State Parkway in Holmdel — will be up and operating Monday morning, with hours there likewise scheduled to extend from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Beyond peace of mind for those worried about whether they are infected, officials and health experts say that expanded testing for COVID-19, which has now left 11 state residents dead, is one of the key factors in getting handle on the scope of the outbreak and formulating public health strategies to combat it.

“Expanding testing is absolutely critical for a number of reasons,” Murphy said. “First, of course, people may be exhibiting signs of COVID-19 or may have been exposed in any way to a known case, and need to be tested.”

He added, “The more testing we implement, the better we will be to track the scope of the spread of coronavirus, which will allow us to take even more focused action to flatten the curve and mitigate further spread. The data the testing provides us is critical to our response.”

Also on hand were executives of two big labs, which will both be involved in the testing of the specimens to determine whether COVID-19 is present or not.

Murphy said BioReference Laboratories and LabCorp, both state companies, are now involved in the specimen testing.

“Make no mistake, this is a game-changer in our overall efforts,” Murphy said. “Lab capacity is no longer an issue in New Jersey, as it is nationwide. Our focus can now more to specimen collection statewide.”

Bill Hass, senior vice president for LabCorp said results should be known in “three to four days.”

The Bergen Community site was manned by volunteer health care workers. Those looking to be tested remain in their cars through the whole process. Then workers wearing protective gear obtained specimens by swabbing the nose and throat.

Those looking to be tested must show symptoms, such as cough, fever or shortness of breath, or have a doctor’s referral. Proof of New Jersey residency is also required.

“I’m here with my son,” said Monique Whilby of Elmwood Park. “He’s getting tested because he’s having flu-like symptoms, and the doctors don’t want him to come to the doctor’s office. They rather us come here.”

Also waiting for a test was a woman who identified herself as Tiffany and said she works at a senior care facility in Essex County, where someone tested positive for COVID-19. She said she feels sick.

“I couldn’t get into a regular doctor’s office,” she said. “Emergency rooms are jam-packed and they’re overwhelmed. So everybody’s redirecting us everywhere, so I’m here.”

New Jersey is one of 12 states where FEMA set up sites like this and equipped them with protective gear for those taking the specimens, in addition to the 2,500 test kits per week.

“We can get more,” said Chris Neuwirth, the assistant commissioner in charge of the Health Department’s public health infrastructure arm, which also has oversight over laboratories and emergency preparedness. “Depending on what the burn rate is — how much we draw down on the 2,500 — we’re working with FEMA to replenish that cache as quickly as possible.”

Also on hand at the testing site, and later sharing the stage for the press briefing with Murphy, was Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco, who noted that positive cases have been reported now in 56 of Bergen’s 70 communities.

“We built the village in three days. The people have come,” he said. “We’ll make adjustments as necessary, but we’re testing. And that’s really important.”

The site’s organized and staffed by Bergen County and the state Department of Health. National Guard members were also on hand.