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In Camden, curbing COVID-19 requires more testing, but not just more testing

Coronavirus testing site in Camden, New Jersey

Health care workers at a coronavirus testing site at Cooper's Poynt Park in Camden, New Jersey, on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

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As Camden County inches closer to 3,000 cases of COVID-19, leaders and health professionals plan to expand COVID-19 testing capabilities in the county’s growing epicenter of the outbreak – the city of Camden, which accounts for more than a quarter of cases.

But the county says tests alone can’t curb the spread of the virus. Expanded tests will continue to be paired with wraparound support services to address what makes some residents so vulnerable to the illness in the first place.

“Once those individuals get in, we could address other issues that may be impacting them,” said county spokesperson Dan Keashen. “Whether it’s food insecurity, problems with having shelter, keeping a roof over their head.”

The new county-run testing facility will open Wednesday in South Camden at a Motor Vehicle Commission office parking lot. It starts testing as the first county-run center at the city’s waterfront, and the only one until this week, prepares to close its doors Friday.

According to county data, more than 1,600 people have been able to get tested at the waterfront location since its April opening, but the site could be out of reach for people who lacked transportation.

“This new site is going to help us test a number of neighborhoods within those areas that would not have been able to get to the original testing site,” said Keashen.

Another testing facility will open in East Camden May 5 at Dudley Grange Park. These new locations will complement the testing taking place in the county’s three health care campuses which include, Virtua Health System, Cooper University Health Care and Jefferson Health.

Both of the new options will allow people to walk or drive up to get tested with a doctor’s referral and appointment.

No one will be turned away, according to officials. Patients will be tested so long as they believe they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The services will be available Monday through Friday between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. in South Camden and 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. in East Camden.

And residents who test positive can expect more than a call with the bad news if they test positive.

“We knew that Camden was going to see a rise in cases”

Even in the early days of the outbreaks that rocked the northern New Jersey counties, health advocates worried about the virus’ arrival to the city of Camden.

“We knew that Camden was going to see a rise in cases,” Kathleen Noonan, CEO of the Camden Coalition, a nonprofit that works with high-risk populations in the region.

Part of the problem is the densely populated city.  Many residents are living in tight quarters, said Noonan – think generations of families living in rowhomes – making it hard to stop transmission of the virus.

Another factor that makes it hard to contain the virus is the city’s mobile residents who commute to Cherry Hill or Philadelphia, another COVID-19 hotspot.

“Camden is pretty close to also places where there are lots of jobs,” said Noonan, adding many residents have low-wage jobs, in places such as supermarkets, that don’t have the option to work from home. “So there’s a different kind of frontline worker in Camden.”

And it’s the socioeconomic hardships that existed before the pandemic that Noonan and the city are trying to address.

Camden installed portable sinks so those experiencing homelessness could follow federal health recommendations of frequent handwashing. It also deployed county police officers into neighborhoods with stay-at-home information in hand.

City officials struck a deal with a hotel so people with no other place to go could quarantine there.

Meanwhile, Rutgers-Camden nurses have offered telehealth services for residents and the county delivered more than 51,000 free meals to residents, as well as homemade face masks.

Camden’s “global” approach aims to even out the risks people have to consider when leaving home.

“It’s not that people don’t understand COVID,” said Noonan. “It’s just that there are sometimes, I think, things that are more risky for them.  It may be more risky for them to stay in a small apartment, either by themselves or with people who are just making them feel like they need to get out for a minute or more. Or it may be more risky not to leave and go do their job.”

Clergy have also played an integral part in providing their congregants with pertinent information. Every week they have a virtual meeting with the police chief.

“We really need the federal government’s help”

While the city of Camden does account for a significant portion of the county’s COVID-19 cases, countywide data echoes trends seen elsewhere.

Health care workers account for at least 300 of the county’s cases, roughly 13%, according to Keashen.

Long-term care facilities have also been a source of outbreaks. Staff and residents account for more than 500 of the county’s cases.

Though the state regulates these sites, Camden County officials have started to spot check the 56 long-term care facilities, and their combined 15,000 residents, within its borders.

But Keashen said the curbing outbreaks in nursing homes, wraparound services, and increased testing won’t be enough if the county can’t test asymptomatic people.

“We need a testing regimen that is going to mirror what they’re doing in Taiwan and South Korea,” said Keashen. “Unfortunately, we’re doing everything we can, we’re going above and beyond to get the testing resources, but we really need the federal government’s help. We need federal intervention. There need to be tests for everyone.”

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