U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer is calling on the federal Department of Health and Human Services to release funds to enable local communities to offer free COVID-19 testing.
Schumer was in the Orleans County town of Medina on Thursday, where he joined officials from Medina Memorial Hospital to address the county’s lack of free COVID-19 test sites. Schumer (D-NY) demanded HHS release the testing dollars he reportedly helped to originally secure in prior COVID relief legislation, saying that Orleans County alone will need thousands of dollars to conduct sufficient rapid testing and tracing programs to keep residents safe from the virus. Schumer also announced his intention to fight for more of those funds for communities across Upstate New York as the possibility of a second wave emerges and as a COVID relief deal continues to be negotiated.
“With flu season upon us and a resurgence of COVID in New York, in order to keep everyone safe, we’re going to need rapid tests and we’re going to need them quickly,” Schumer said. “Right now, Orleans County residents have extremely limited access to COVID testing, and often they need to travel to Buffalo or Rochester to get tested, which is unacceptable, inaccessible and could wreak havoc on the health and safety of the community if COVID rates continue to climb. The feds are sitting on over $9 billion that can and should be long out the door, being used to ramp up 100 percent free testing in places like Orleans. Those dollars should immediately be used to get rapid tests to ensure peace of mind and some semblance of stability to Orleans residents who have already endured a tumultuous year.”
The process is especially discouraging for at-risk populations from rural areas like Orleans, Schumer said, where public transportation is limited and long-distance travel is difficult.
Schumer praised Medina Memorial Hospital and the Albion Clinic for offering COVID testing for Orleans County residents but he said funding for a standalone free testing site in Orleans County would dramatically increase access to testing and is critical to containing the virus throughout the winter. County officials project that they will need at least seven or eight rapid test machines and thousands of test kits at minimum, compared with the two machines and 700 rapid test kits they have now.
The need for funding and a robust testing regime is especially strong in Orleans County, Schumer said, where some students are attending school in person. Western and Central New York’s COVID-19 case numbers are rising to May levels, and New York state’s new COVID micro-cluster metrics, which identify areas of high COVID spread and labels them by red, orange or yellow that determine testing and lockdown protocols, have already prompted Orleans County officials to seek additional testing capacity, especially in schools, to meet the new requirements.
Earlier this month, all third-graders in the Lyndonville School District switched to remote learning after a school staff member contracted COVID, and several students testing positive at the Albion school prompted more than 50 families to switch their children from an in-person hybrid model to fully remote schooling. This week Medina High School said it would not resume in-school instruction until Nov. 30th due to the high number of staff members currently out due to mandatory quarantine and/or waiting for COVID test results.
Schumer and Orleans County officials said these reversals back to fully-remote learning as the virus resurges will disrupt student learning and are inevitable without sufficient testing, making it all the more important that HHS releases the funding for more testing immediately.
“There’s absolutely no question that the health and safety of all students across Upstate New York is paramount, bar none. The federal government cannot and must not repeat COVID mistakes of the past months. Instead, it must do everything in its power to keep students, families, and teachers safe, and use the dollars it has and the premise of robust testing and tracing to tamp down any second wave of this virus and lead us to a true recovery,” Schumer said.
Last Thursday, Orleans County reported 30 new COVID cases, which was its highest daily number of new infections since May when the county had 23 cases in one day. On Tuesday, the county confirmed 10 new cases for a total of 529 positive cases since March. The number of people in Finger Lakes region hospitals has roughly doubled since the end of October.
“Increasing COVID testing capacity is vital to keep our community safe and avoid other restrictive measures that can disrupt our businesses, in-school instruction, and families. I applaud Sen. Schumer’s efforts to free up existing federal testing funding now so that communities like Orleans County can have access to more testing,” said Lynne Johnson, chairman of the Orleans County Legislature.
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