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Suffolk towns press County Executive Bellone to expand free virus testing

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 11,

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 11, 2020 at A+ Technology Solutions in Bay Shore. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Suffolk County’s town supervisors are urging the county to reopen free COVID-19 testing sites ahead of a potential second wave of infections this fall.

But County Executive Steve Bellone says the new sites are not needed when the number of coronavirus cases is low and tests for the virus are more widely available.

The Suffolk Town Supervisors Association, which represents the 10 Suffolk town supervisors, has asked Bellone to use federal CARES Act funding to open more free testing locations countywide, saying there is only one free public testing site in the 900-square-mile county.

“Our region has seen the COVID-19 pandemic at its worst. We owe it to our residents to do everything in our power to avoid a second wave,” the association wrote on Aug. 21 to Bellone.

Bellone's administration did not dismiss the request, but said free county testing sites are not necessary while the infection rate is below 1%.

There are at least 100 places to get tested in the county, including 20 pharmacies offering free testing, according to county health department data. 

“If the data dictates we need to stand up additional testing sites, we will do that,” Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.

Bellone's office launched a PSA campaign about the number of testing sites in Suffolk over the weekend, after Newsday reached out for comment on this story. 

Suffolk was one of the first municipalities in the nation to launch a free testing program in communities hit hard by the virus.

The first opened in Huntington Station on April 8, and another six pop-up sites soon opened in Brentwood, Central Islip, Wyandanch, Riverhead, Coram and North Amityville. The state's Stony Brook site was the only other free testing location in the county. 

The hot spot program, which cost the county about $900,000, tested more than 9,500 people before its suspension June 26, officials said.

Bellone said the suspension came as tests became available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and urgent care centers. Also, the number of people seeking testing at hot spots dropped from more than 100 a day at each site to fewer than 10. 

Legis. William Spencer, a physician who leads the legislature's health committee, said he agrees more county sites are not needed "at this second," given the county's low infection rate, high cost of running such sites and the wide availability of testing.

"That might change as soon as we start putting the kids back into school," Spencer (D-Centerport) said. "The county should … be ready to respond and put them up within a day should the need arise."

Bellone said in an Aug. 26 response to the supervisors that “I am confident the county will be able to reactivate former sites quickly” if needed, saying officials had opened the Huntington site in four days.

But supervisors say more sites are needed soon, especially in the areas that had high case numbers and on the East End, which has no free testing sites, according to county health data.   

"On the East End, people are managing to get tests, but Stony Brook is a long way away," Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said.

Most people can get coronavirus tests without charge under federal laws enacted in March. Insurance companies are supposed to cover the costs of tests with few exceptions, and the federal government covers the cost for some uninsured people. But health care providers that don't take insurance are legally allowed to charge, officials said.

The county's hot spot testing was administered by Hudson River HealthCare, a nonprofit that operates eight county-subsidized health clinics. The testing was free to patients at pop-up sites because of county funding. But some patients who were tested at HRH clinics after the program ended received bills, officials said.

HRH bills uninsured people for services on a sliding scale based on ability to pay, and some patients may receive a separate bill from BioReference, the lab that processes the tests, an HRH spokesman said. BioReference did not respond to a request for comment last week.

“We’re finding that the communities that were hit hardest were the communities [where] many of the residents are just barely affording to live,” supervisor association chair Rich Schaffer, who also serves as Babylon Town supervisor and chairman of the Suffolk County Democratic chairman.

“And a bill for a COVID test may discourage them” from getting tested, Schaffer said.

Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter, a Republican, said towns cannot set up testing sites on their own without financial support.

The Suffolk towns could not apply for federal CARES Act funding because none meet the eligibility requirement of a population of 500,000 or more.

Suffolk County received $257 million in CARES funding, and Carpenter said some of that should go for free testing. 

"If you want me to set it up, send me the money to do it," Carpenter said. 

Bellone, a Democrat, said the county's CARES funding, which must be used for COVID-19-related expenses, already has been allocated.

County comptroller John Kennedy said Suffolk has only claimed about $87 million for CARES expense reimbursements so far.

Suffolk residents seeking coronavirus testing may call 311 for site information.