Black Doctors will test SEPTA employees for COVID-19 at stations

Sharon Settles, a maintenance worker, is tested for COVID-19 by Registered Nurse Cyndi Walker of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium at the Fern Rock Transportation Center in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sharon Settles, a maintenance worker, is tested for COVID-19 by Registered Nurse Cyndi Walker of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium at the Fern Rock Transportation Center in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA employees are now able to get tested for COVID-19 free of charge at four transit stations thanks to a new partnership with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

Michael Boatright was among the agency employees to get tested through the program launched Thursday at Fern Rock Station. Boatright, a father to young children, is diabetic, which increases his risk of dying from infection. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.

Testing by the nonprofit medical group, led by Dr. Ala Stanford, will happen at two transit stations weekly, moving between the Fern Rock and 69th Street Transportation Centers, Suburban Station, and Midvale Depot in Nicetown. Fifty employees will be able to get tested each day, said SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards.

The partnership comes at a critical moment for SEPTA. The 9,500-strong workforce lost seven colleagues to the coronavirus and nearly 300 SEPTA employees have tested positive for the virus. While 60% of those sickened by the virus have returned to work, and new safety measures are in place, the region is in the midst of a reopening that will increase risk for SEPTA employees.

“Our employees are out there on the front line everyday,” said Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr., SEPTA board vice chairman. “That’s why it’s important they should have the security of knowing that they can get a test if they need a test. But even more importantly, or as important, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium is testing our customers.”

The Montgomery County commissioner found out he had contracted the virus from a test administered by the consortium last month. He was asymptomatic.

SEPTA employees and the communities they serve deserve to know their status as well, said Lawrence, who praised the group for administering more than 5,400 tests in seven weeks.

Dr. Stanford returned the kind words and recognized SEPTA for signing the group’s contract.

“It speaks volumes about the organization that they are,” Stanford said. “Because aside from working in a hospital, I don’t know that many people who are saying, ‘We recognize that you’re frontline employees, and we want to make sure you get tested.’”

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It’s been a big week for Stanford, who began offering free tests to people in April, working with donated supplies and volunteers in church parking lots and other sites located in neighborhoods hard hit by the virus. After pressure from City Council and community leaders, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced Tuesday that the city would contract with the group to expand testing.

The COVID-19 tests happen quickly. Doctors shove what looks to be a Q-Tip up a patient’s nostrils, twist, remove, then place them in a bag to be shipped off to a lab for results. SEPTA signed a $90,000 contract with the group that provides 900 tests for the workforce. It could be renewed.

“We hope that the Black Doctors Consortium will want to continue working with us,” said Richards. “We will want to continue working with them.”

SEPTA officials began a search for coronavirus saliva test kits weeks ago. The effort to begin in-house testing came out of negotiations over workforce safety during the pandemic with Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents SEPTA workers.

SEPTA has brought back the vast majority of its transit service with COVID-19 safety measures in place, such as rider limits to promote social distancing and a face-covering requirement. Richards says officials are working on a plan to bring Regional Rail service back.

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