Residents with no COVID-19 symptoms seek tests at new Camden County site, are turned away

Motorists line up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center in the Motor Vehicle Commission parking lot in Camden, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Motorists line up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center in the Motor Vehicle Commission parking lot in Camden, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Camden opened a new COVID-19 testing site Wednesday so the county could test more sick patients who might have the virus, but that didn’t stop a handful of seemingly healthy people from showing up in the first hour, hoping for some peace of mind.

“Everybody should get tested even if they don’t have symptoms,” said Alfredo Tineo, 26, as he left the site looking dejected.

The health care workers staffing the center had just informed Tineo he wasn’t sick enough to get a test.

Tineo drove to the South Camden site from neighboring Pennsauken. He said he was experiencing shortness of breath, which he admits is more likely anxiety than anything else, but was otherwise feeling fine.

Without a test, Tineo said he’s too scared to go back to work as an Uber driver.

“Just because you never know who has it. You always putting people in and out of the car,” he said.

Public health officials have said testing everyone regularly is the ideal way to spot and control new COVID-19 outbreaks. But they’ve also stressed local governments don’t have the supplies necessary to do that.

“We still do have a very limited amount of test kits and for that reason at this site, at this time, we can only test folks who have symptoms of the COVID infection,” said Sam Weiner, the medical director of primary care and urgent care at Virtua Medical Group, which is helping run the South Camden testing facility.

Still, residents like William Smith are desperate. Smith and his wife drove from Oaklyn, also in Camden County, and begged for tests after being turned away at other sites for not having severe enough symptoms.

“They say you may have it and may not know it,” he explained. “So I just want to make sure.”

Smith said his wife has had a persistent cough. The pair have a teenager at home who they don’t want to infect.

He was able to convince the South Camden staff to give him and his wife a test. As the person in the household who runs most of the errands, like grocery shopping, he feels particularly relieved to have gotten one.

“I just want to make sure I’m okay and can live another day,” he explained.

In Camden, clergy, health leaders and county police have been working together to disperse COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and mitigation strategies for hard to reach communities.

Still, some residents like Wanda Robinson, 58, of South Camden, said they’ve heard little about testing. Robinson, who has followed stay-at-home orders, said she got in line at the South Camden site because she was under the impression she was doing the wrong thing by not getting tested.

“I mean, I feel fine, I thought everyone had to be tested,” she said. “I thought we were supposed to get tested for the heck of it.”

Camden County leaders hope residents who can’t get tested will at least get some peace of mind by speaking with a health care professional in person. As part of the triage process, those who come to the site get face time with someone from the medical team.

The Monday-to-Friday operation, which aims to test some 100 people a day, triages patients who choose to drive in or walk up. On its first day of operation Wednesday, more than 30 people had appointments. Several others walked up within the hour.

The new site was placed in a part of the city home to many African American and Latinx residents. National data indicate they have been contracting COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. Compounding the issue are anecdotal reports of ethnic minorities having a harder time getting tested.

While a handful of people left upset they couldn’t get a test, people like Robinson left happy after talking to a health care professional and avoiding the invasive nose swabbing done as part of the specimen collection.

She said the whole process took three minutes. Her results will come back in seven days, officials said.

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.

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