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On parents' to-do list: Finding options to get children tested for COVID-19

With schools open again, Dr. Sharon Nachman, an infectious disease expert at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, tells parents what they need to know about getting their children tested for the coronavirus. Credit: Newsday

The back-to-school scramble has been different this year.

Along with getting school supplies and setting up home classrooms, some parents are trying to figure out when, where and how to get their children tested for COVID-19 should a case emerge in their school.

That means sorting through a mix of options: pediatricians, health centers, hospital networks and school partnerships with health systems. There also are costs to consider because while COVID-19 tests are often touted as free at pharmacies, urgent care facilities and other sites, insurance coverage and fees can vary.

Allison Dubois, chief operating officer and executive vice president at Hudson River Healthcare, which runs 10 federally qualified health centers serving about 80,000 people a year in Suffolk County, said speaking with a clinician is important when determining if and when a child should be tested for the coronavirus.

"We want to make sure the test is being given at the right time," Dubois said. "You could do a test too early … recommendations are changing." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revised its testing guidelines throughout the pandemic.

There are testing sites and facilities scattered throughout Long Island.

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Federally qualified health centers in Nassau and Suffolk counties offer free and low-cost services, where visits can cost as little as $15 or $20, according to a sliding scale based on a person's income. The centers, operated, respectively, by Long Island FQHC Inc. and Hudson River Health Care, help low-income, underinsured and uninsured residents, as well as patients with Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance.

Long Island FQHC operates centers at 10 locations in Nassau County and provides comprehensive health services and COVID-19 testing. In addition, Nassau County has given the nonprofit funding to operate a free COVID-19 testing clinic on Saturdays at several locations, said David Nemiroff, its president and chief executive.

At those clinics, people are not asked for insurance or any other documentation, only contact information for test results.

"Early on, it became obvious that COVID-19 was impacting minority communities more than most," Nemiroff said. "We want to get people tested quickly so we can start contact tracing and help people get the services they need."

Both Nemiroff and Dubois pointed out that all children 18 years of age and younger are entitled to free health insurance, even if their parents are not eligible. They can be signed up at health centers in both counties, an important step in connecting them with primary care.

Free testing options

Free testing is available through appointment at state-sponsored drive-thru centers at Jones Beach and Stony Brook University.

Many pharmacies and urgent care centers provide COVID-19 diagnostic tests, but people must make appointments and go through a screening process. Last week, CVS Health started offering COVID-19 testing for children 12 and older at its drive-thru sites. A company spokeswoman said uninsured patients will be covered by the federal CARES Act program.

Northwell Health since May has partnered with more than 70 faith-based organizations in the New York region for free testing.

"The program is really focused on underserved communities, which are often communities of color," said Dr. Deb Salas-Lopez, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell. "It’s critically important to be in these communities, which were hard hit by COVID."

Salas-Lopez said Northwell has publicized the program locally online, as well as at convenience stores, bus stops and community centers.

For example, Northwell set up a COVID-19 testing center in August at The Church of the Transfiguration in Freeport, where the Rev. Raymond Wilson said access is needed. "This is a neighborhood where we have a lot of immigrants who have moved in. Some do not speak English, and some might not be working," Wilson said.

Wilson said some uninsured community members couldn't afford to get tested elsewhere.

Separately, Northwell has partnered with the Town of Hempstead to set up COVID-19 testing locations. Those were paid for by CARES Act funds.

Antibody testing centers are operational, and Town Supervisor Don Clavin said "we are already in talks to expand the program to include COVID-19 diagnostic testing" at town locations.

Helping families get access

Some Long Island school districts are partnering with health systems on COVID-19 preparation plans and information for families.

Northwell is working with about 10 school districts and private schools in New York to mitigate risk and provide parents with contact information and safety tips, according to Nick Stefanizzi, the chief executive of Northwell Direct.

He said depending on the situation, Northwell will facilitate helping a child get "the appropriate level of access," which could include getting tested, making an appointment with their pediatrician or booking a visit for urgent care.

"It’s important for educational facilities to make an investment in the front end, to really mitigate the possibility of spread," Stefanizzi said. "We can’t, however, guarantee 100 percent that any plan will stop the spread, so that’s why we have a triage call center set up in case parents or educators have questions or concerns."

The Green Vale School, a private school in Old Brookville, said it worked with Northwell to create a safety plan for the school year.

The plan included reviewing the school’s filtration system and training staff about how COVID-19 spreads, said Jesse Dougherty, head of school at Green Vale, which has 425 students from prenursery to eighth grade.

Dougherty added that the call center has been well received by parents.

"The concierge Northwell hotline is a wonderful sense of security for families," he said. "Instead of asking the school what to do, you can ask Northwell."

A plan for every school

Many public schools have posted information about testing centers on their websites.

"Every school has a protocol available online," said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. "If there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, the schools will send information to the parents."

For example, the Westbury Union Free School District has a special section that includes information on testing, preventing the spread of COVID-19 and what to do if you are sick with the virus.

Public schools were required by the state to provide testing information for parents, said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which serves 51 school districts in the county.

"Since the vast majority of districts do not do their own testing, they shared information on where to get tested," Lutz said, adding that some locations were free, while others could bill a family's insurance plan.

New Hyde Park-based PM Pediatrics is in discussions with public and private schools to offer clinical guidance about COVID-19 testing, said Dr. Christina Johns, the pediatric urgent care group’s senior medical adviser.

She said PM Pediatrics expects to see an increase in testing after schools are open for a few weeks. The urgent care centers bill tests through a family’s insurance. Those without insurance are charged $65 for a regular COVID-19 test and $100 for a rapid test.

"As far as when students should get tested, that is case dependent," Johns said. "Being exposed is defined by being near an infected person for 15 minutes at 6 feet or closer. Technically, schools are making accommodations to keep children from being exposed, but the reality is that’s difficult to do with most kids, so the better part of valor would be to get tested."

Experts say parents should start out by reading their school’s COVID-19 action plan, a state-required document.

As a good first step, Nachman added, parents concerned their children have been exposed to COVID-19 "should check in immediately" with their pediatricians and primary care doctors.

"The worst thing is to go and ask about it on Facebook," she added. "That is the most likely way to get misinformation."

To test a child for COVID-19

Q: A student or staff member at my child’s school has tested positive for COVID-19. Should my child get a COVID-19 test?

A: It’s a good idea to consult a medical professional first, because the timing of the test depends on possible exposure to a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Children who do not have a regular pediatrician can get an appointment at one of the federal qualified health centers in Nassau or Suffolk counties: Long Island FQHC Inc. in Nassau County at lifqhc.com or 516-296-3742, or Hudson River HealthCare for Suffolk County, hrhcare.org, 844-474-2273. Fees are based on a sliding scale. There is no charge for a COVID-19 test, but BioReference Labs may pass on a fee that should be covered by the federal CARES Act program.

Q: Where can I get a free COVID-19 test?

A: Sites operated by the New York State Health Department, including drive-thru testing sites at Jones Beach and Stony Brook University, are free — but you need to make an appointment. To register, go to https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/covid-19-testing. Long Island FQHC also offers free COVID-19 tests on first and third Saturdays at Elmont and Roosevelt and second and fourth Saturdays at Hempstead, Freeport and Westbury. For an appointment, call 516-396-7500.

SOURCE: Newsday research

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