A Mayor Accepts a Nightmare: The COVID Tests Won’t Come
Jersey City tests about 2,100 people a week. It would need about 10 times that to safely bring the city out of its shutdown. The mayor has decided to start reopening anyway.
JERSEY CITY, New Jersey—At a coronavirus testing site at the Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center on this city’s south side, New Jersey, a nurse dressed in a blue medical gown, face mask, face shield, and gloves guides a long white swab up a fireman’s nose.
The fireman grimaces and grumbles, puffing out his nostrils a few times before the nurse pulls the test out and places it into a medical tube. The entire process lasts about 30 seconds.
“Didn’t hurt as much as it did last time,” he says, laughing.
Medical workers here, in a building where community members normally exercise and indulge in art classes, are testing city residents, many of them first responders, in an effort to contain the virus that has infected more than 5,517 people in the city and killed 285 in the last 54 days.
Having had a long skinny Q-tip-like test rammed all the way up his nostril, the fireman rubs his nose, pushes his face mask back up his face and walks away. But not before being told that he will get his results in somewhere between three and five days. The next person walks up to a blue line and tilts his head back for the invasive poke. The test is quick and the line moves swiftly. There’s a precise order to it all. James Shea, the director of the city’s Department of Public Safety, picks up a clipboard and jots down a resident’s name on the master list. The man would be the 101st person to get tested at this site today. It is 11:45 a.m.
Despite the efficiency of operations at Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center, officials in the city, with a population of about 250,000, will only test about 300 people today. The contract the city signed with private labs months ago allows them to test 2,100 people a week.
While that number may sound low, it’s actually on the higher end for daily totals in cities across New Jersey, which average about 7,000 per day. Jersey City plans to ramp up testing this week, loosening restrictions so that any resident who requests one can get it, even those showing no symptoms. The expansion will eventually include antibody testing, local officials say.
Still, Mayor Steven Fulop knows it won’t be nearly enough. And he’s OK with that. He’s moving to slowly reopen the city anyway.
Relaxing the current public safety restrictions in Jersey City seems rather ill-advised on the surface. Academics have said that New Jersey, with the second highest total infections and coronavirus related deaths in the country, would have to increase testing tenfold before it could feel comfortable about returning to economic normalcy. That would mean that Jersey City, one of the most densely populated municipalities in the state, would have to get to a point where it was testing thousands of people a day.
“It’s a crazy number. It’s not going to happen,” Fulop says from behind his desk, which features a photo of him shaking hands with former President Obama and another one with Bill Clinton. “I think that we need to be careful but realistic. Absent a vaccine or treatment, nothing will change with regards to the risk of people being outside. So you’re never going to live in a risk-free world, so you just got to manage it... And you have to trust the residents… to make smart choices.”
Sitting in his city hall office in Jersey City, Fulop isn’t naive about the problems that the city has encountered in getting tests. Nor was he pollyannaish about reopening. He’d simply arrived at the sobering conclusion that the testing metrics weren’t going to be met any time soon and, from there, made a decision of risk and reward.
Fulop’s calculus underscores the extent to which local officials across the country have moved from the phase of shock and scramble into one of acceptance as the coronavirus has lingered. After weeks of calling on the federal government for help with testing resources, local officials, especially here in Jersey City, are indignant at the response they have received, still wondering when, if ever, that tap will be opened. But increasingly they are proceeding as if it won’t, leaving them with what they see as the last, unfortunate option: rolling the dice, albeit with care and prayer.
“If we know that there is not enough testing available then what choice do you have as a municipality ultimately? If you have 300,000 people … and there is not an option to get that many tests, what do you do? I’m going to keep everything closed indefinitely until I can procure enough tests?,” Fulop ponders, sipping an oversized coffee.
He’s sporting Adidas kicks and wearing a grey baseball cap that covers hair that hasn’t been cut since the social distancing guidelines went into place. It’s true “Work From Home” attire, but with a tiny flair of city-boosting to it. The cap has the words “JERSEY CITY” across it. His office and his desk are mahogany wood. The decoration here is a source of constant conversation among staffers and officials in the building, which is in the process of being renovated. The ’70s-style flooring was ripped up. Beneath it lay the building’s more than 100-year-old floors. Today is the first day Fulop is seeing them. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Fulop is sitting down for an interview on a busy day at the end of April, though they're all seemingly busy now. Coronavirus issues are the main focus of his meetings and conference calls. But the city is dealing with a major water main break too, as well as an active water boil advisory and is preparing to restart street sweeping.
“When we said we would start sweeping again people didn’t move their cars. They were just like f*** off and just kept them there,” Fulop says, adding that the city will start ticketing people if cars are in the way.
Jersey City is the largest town in Hudson County and sits across the river from Manhattan. From the downtown piers here you can see the entire skyline—crystal clear in recent days with pollution down now that people are staying home. To those that live here, it at times feels like they are part of the city across the river—where the coronavirus case count is nearly 30 times that of Fulop’s municipality. Thousands of people travel from this area into New York each day. Now, although transit is still running, the ferry docks are quiet and only a few people trickle out of the train stations during rush hour.
Jersey City’s economy relies in large part on its manufacturing and construction sectors. With most of those businesses significantly scaled back, Fulop worries a long-term shutdown could completely cripple the city. But that isn’t necessarily what is propelling him to move toward reopening. He says it’s more about regaining a sense of normalcy. “It’s going to be harder and harder to keep people inside,” he says.
“I get what the perfect environment would look like for reopening but I don’t think it is realistic based on what’s out there and what is available,” he says.
Fulop’s recognition of the problems left unresolved stands in contrast to the far rosier picture being offered by the president and his aides. For weeks now, Donald Trump has insisted that testing capacity in the U.S. is unparalleled and that states or municipalities who have insisted otherwise were merely being political. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has overseen a shadow task force designed, in part, to make testing more readily available, called the federal government’s response a resounding “success story.”
In reality, Trump and his administration took action too late; testing was faulty, and then it was behind schedule. The White House, particularly the president himself, overpromised, telling reporters in March that everyone who wanted a test could get a test. But that wasn’t true. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the country, said last week that everyone who “needs” a test will be able to get one in June.
More than a month later and the U.S. has tested more than 6.4 million people. But Fauci continues to stress that the U.S. is not yet where it needs to be with testing before fully reopening the economy. Last week the Trump administration said they would ramp up testing across the country, with the help of the private sector, so states can safely move toward reopening. But the president and his coronavirus task force offered few details about how many tests it plans to ship and when it plans to get them into the supply chain.
That announcement didn’t calm the nerves of local officials in Jersey City.
Frustrated with the state’s inability to move more swiftly, Fulop and his team have moved to figure things out on their own. They spent much of January, when the virus was spreading in China and Europe, on the phone calling distributors to stock up on personal protective equipment. When the first case was reported in the city in early March, Fulop moved to close down the nightclubs, ordering people inside by 10 p.m. He went to the state to coordinate on testing. But it quickly became clear that going through bureaucratic channels wasn’t going to work. So, Fulop looked elsewhere, using the city’s money to contract with state labs directly.
“When we started this everything was moving really fast and we were trying to figure things out,” Fulop says. “We found that the state was slow to respond to everything. We tried to figure it out by ourselves.”
Jersey City was one of the first municipalities in the state to set up its own testing sites. The city paid $750,000 to contract directly with a lab to test residents. The city streamlines the process by picking up the tests from the sites and delivering them directly to the lab, bypassing the county all together. Sometimes local officials can get results back to residents within 18 hours.
But the city is limited by the confines of their contract with the labs, which can only test 2,100 a week. And though Fulop says the city will begin to test anyone who wants to be tested he and his team still can’t test more than what the contract stipulates.
Now, Fulop and his team are just trying to maintain what they’ve put into place. And that takes work. Fulop’s days are filled with media appearances. A Democrat, he has increasingly found himself going on conservative shows, all in an attempt to bring attention to the work he and his team are doing. Some days that means focusing on bringing the famous farmers markets back. Other days it’s about focusing on ensuring small businesses in the city have what they need to reopen.
At the heart of Jersey City's quest to conquer—or at least control—the coronavirus is basic data, from testing to infections to deaths and hospitalizations. And helping Fulop and his city collect and scrutinize that data is Stacy Flanagan, the city’s Department of Health and Human Services director.
At the testing site on the south side of the city Flanagan is busy on the phone, trying to ensure the city is ready for an influx of requests this week when the city begins to loosen restrictions.
“At first it was so busy we had hundreds of people leaving voicemails on one phone and we couldn’t catch up,” Flanagan says while holding a large iced coffee in a mason jar. She says a full night’s sleep is hard to come by recently. “And people couldn’t get in right away because we had to go back and listen to the voicemails and make appointments. It’s much easier now to get people in.”
Flanagan is in the middle of working on finalizing a contract with labs to conduct antibody testing. That contract would be an addition to the one that stipulates the labs complete 2,100 diagnostic tests a week. In addition, Flanagan says the city’s fire department received a federal grant to develop a mobile testing unit on a fire vehicle but the state is moving slowly on approving a permit that would allow the city to test outside of a traditional lab.
In an upstairs room at the community center, Flanagan and Fulop sit across from each other on folding chairs, cellphones in hand. They’re listening in to a call where local officials are planning to plant trees in honor of those who have died because of the coronavirus.
“It is very challenging dealing with the state on this,” Flanagan says. “They’ve never done large-scale decision making that impacts anyone more than them. They are really looking at this from a southern state perspective that is not as impacted as we are.”
Later in the day, at another meeting at city hall Fulop and Flanagan meet with other local officials on how the city should start loosening social distancing restrictions. They sit in rolly chairs on the second floor around the opening to the rotunda, which is sealed off with a white covering because construction workers are redoing the floors in the building and checking for asbestos.
The conversation twists and turns, with officials focusing on which parks to open first. There’s one they’re wary of opening too quickly because apparently it attracts “violent” dogs. Flanagan gives updates on expanding testing and where she sees the next pocket of the city’s most vulnerable populations.
About 250 miles away, the state’s governor, Phil Murphy, is meeting with Trump. A video clip circulates on Twitter of the governor saying the president has offered to help the state with its testing needs and will provide resources for a contact tracing program.
No one here notices.
Their mind is on the reopening. The city anticipates that it will soon begin testing employees at local businesses to set the stage for their allowing customers to return. Fulop says the city will use parking spaces for outdoor seating areas to help with distancing people from one another.
In between meetings, Fulop calls into a Fox Business show to explain his thinking on reopening the city sooner rather than later. The host asks him about testing. His answer is the same one he gave earlier.
Fulop turns toward me to explain his thinking, again, this time, more cautiously.
“I’m not saying open everything up. Don’t get me wrong,” Fulop tells me after his interview. “But I’m saying absent a treatment or a vaccine there’s always going to be a risk and you need to figure out how to move forward.”