Local COVID-19 Surveillance Testing

This essay was posted July 24, 2020:

I believe in free, local surveillance testing of everyone for the coronavirus. Scientists say it’s among the best ways to fight COVID-19. And although Governor Cuomo has professed free testing stands available to everyone, the stark reality is that we who live hours away from a State testing site, must either undertake the long drive to Syracuse or Binghamton, pay nearly $100 for a locally-performed test, or go without knowing whether we carry the disease. That’s not fair. That’s not right.

Therefore, I’ve joined a local effort to secure local COVID-19 testing, with the assistance of County funds, at the local Cayuga Health Systems drive-through facility. The following stories document my initiative:

Universal COVID Testing, Make it Happen Here!

Perhaps, we do too much of a good thing, so that some take our good work for granted.  Or maybe complacent bureaucrats comforted by the conveniences of life in the Big-City Bubble fail to sense the problem.  Worse yet, they may relegate lowly Upstate, Tompkins County, to the backwater boondocks.

Here’s the problem:  July first, Governor Cuomo crowed from his Downstate perch that all New Yorkers—including the asymptomatic—now qualify for free, COVID-19 testing.  Among Upstate communities, our Cayuga Health /CMC Sampling Site at the local mall provides one of COVID testing’s best.

Of course, there’s a catch.  And it’s why if you call the Cayuga Health Sampling Site registration number, and you don’t have symptoms, or known contact with a diagnosed patient, or an essential job, you still can’t get an appointment—Andrew Cuomo’s soothing reassurances to the contrary.

As usual, the problem is money.  Cayuga Health can’t get reimbursed for the cost of testing you if you’re asymptomatic.  Don’t blame the nurse.  Blame the bureaucrat.

When I see a problem, I try to solve it.  So on Tuesday, July 21st, I took to the Tompkins County Legislature an idea.  Here’s it is:


Good Evening:

Tonight I’d like to suggest something bold.  Something novel.  Yet something necessary.  Maybe nobody’s thought of it yet.  Maybe someone has, but hasn’t spoken up.  Maybe there are a million reasons not to do it.  But it’s worth these three minutes, just in case.

Three weeks ago, Governor Cuomo made a promise about COVID-19 testing:

“We’re now opening testing to all New Yorkers.  We have that much capacity.  All New Yorkers can now go get a test…. It doesn’t cost you anything.  It doesn’t hurt…. Take a test.  And it’s now open to everyone.”

Technically correct, but not here.  Not at the Cayuga Health testing site. “It’s not that anyone who walks up can get tested,” our Health Director, Frank Kruppa, told us municipal leaders on a conference call last week.

The problem is reimbursement.  Insurance rules don’t qualify the asymptomatic for free testing. So Cayuga Health could not cover its costs if it tested asymptomatics at its drive-through.  You want a test?  Without symptoms or an essential job, you’ve got to drive to a state testing site in Syracuse or Binghamton, nearly two hours away.  Face it, most of us won’t bother.  So the asymptomatics go undiagnosed.  They walk and exhale among us.  They compound our risk.

Experts say universal testing, along with contact tracing, is the best way to beat back this virus. Our local numbers are on the rise.  It’s no longer just a case or two.  We now have 32 active cases.  Three are in the hospital.   Experts say carriers of COVID-19 are often most contagious in the few days prior to ever revealing symptoms.

What’s my bold idea?  Why can’t our government, Tompkins County government, reimburse Cayuga Health for universal testing, asymptomatic testing? 

Would it cost money?  Of course.  Wise initiatives always do.  Can we afford it?  Our County’s Budget tops 190 Million Dollars.  And while tough times lie ahead, we can still find the funds for universal testing.  We have the means to do this.  But do we have the will?   We should.

Could this initiative increase taxes?  Perhaps.  But you know what?  Tax increase or not, I think our county’s residents would stand up and cheer.  Finally, they’d say, Government is doing something right!  Something we need.  Something I need.

Put the people… and our community’s health… first.  The clock ticks.  The weeks go by.  The active cases grow.    Want to get tested, but unwilling to make that long drive?  Let Tompkins County help.  Let this Legislature help.  Consider reimbursement for universal COVID testing.  It’s a bold idea, but a good idea.  It’ll keep you and me safer.  Make it happen.

— End of Statement —

Instant  reaction.  Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino assured his Legislature that bureaucracy is working on it. 

T.C. Administrator Jason Molino

Molino:  “For the past two weeks, we’ve worked very carefully with our State representatives, in the [regional COVID-19] “control rooms,” our colleagues up on the Second Floor of the Executive Chambers [that’s geek-speak for Governor Cuomo’s staff], as well as CMC to coordinate and confirm FEMA reimbursement for them to continue to provide that service without a financial loss.”

Molino talked of “verbal confirmations” and imminent future meetings.  A breakthrough?  I’d like to think bureaucrats will stop being bureaucrats and red tape will stop being red. 

We’ll see.  As of Friday (July 24th), CMC still had the same old rules.