New Yorkers have been told they need a car to get tested at city drive-thru sites, but more than half of residents don't own one

  • The New York Health Department has set up various sites throughout New York City for residents to get tested for the novel virus, including at least 3 drive-thru only testing sites.

  • However, only 45% of New York households own cars. And the boroughs of New York that have been hit the hardest by the virus overwhelmingly don't have a vehicle to get tested.

  • New Yorkers say that while the NYSHD is trying their best in the wake of the pandemic, they feel that the accessibility to the free testing sites was overlooked.

On April 9, Spencer McGarth received a call from the New York State Health Department that he had finally been given an appointment to get tested for the coronavirus.

After trekking nearly two hours on public transit to get to the testing site in Flatbush, a neighborhood in New York's Brooklyn borough, the 30-year-old taproom manager was surprised to discover a line of cars snaking around the address instead of a line of people. McGrath, who does not own a car, approached a state trooper at the testing site to confirm his suspicions that a vehicle was required to be tested.

"I walk up to one of the state troopers and he says, 'You can't walk in, you have to have a car,'" McGrath told Business Insider, adding that it appeared as though he was not the first New Yorker to arrive at the testing site on foot.

"He was flustered, but I don't blame him because he had clearly dealt with a lot of people coming up confused," McGrath recalled. Without a car, the trooper said McGrath's only chance of making his elusive appointment was to find a taxi or rideshare app driver who would be willing to take him through the testing site. Fortunately, the first Uber driver McGrath called agreed to take him through the makeshift COVID-19 assessment location.

"Bless that man for taking me through there because I would not have blamed him had he said no," he said.

Although McGrath had high praise for his driver who risked his life to take him through the site for nearly an hour for an $8 fare, the New Yorker was exasperated for having been put in the situation in the first place.

"I understand that all of this is kind of being put together last minute because we're trying to rush to get things done as quickly as possible. But, they need to consider the fact that millions of New Yorkers do not have cars," McGrath told Business Insider.

More than half of New Yorkers will be left scrambling to find a vehicle if they are given an appointment at a drive-thru site

McGrath is hardly the only New Yorker to find himself in this predicament in a city where cases have topped 110,000. According to data from the US Census Bureau, only 45% of New York City households have a vehicle. That leaves more than half of New Yorkers, most of whom typically rely on the city's robust public transit, scrambling to find someone they know with a vehicle or paying for a taxi or Uber if assigned to a drive-thru test site.

As New York swiftly became the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak, the New York State Health Department (NYSHD) scrambled to set up testing sites to assess how far the infection had spread in the state. New York City has been hit the hardest by far, with over 110,000 infections and nearly 8,000 deaths. New Yorkers can call the NYSHD hotline to get screened for their eligibility for a COVID-19 test — if approved, they are given an appointment by NYSHD at their nearest testing site.

So far, New York has opened nine locations for COVID-19 assessment to date — and at least three of those sites in the Bronx, State Island, and Brooklyn are drive-thru only. The state plans to open more walk-in locations and another site that requires a vehicle in Queens, ABC 7 reported.

"The state drive-through testing sites are for people in vehicles who have been screened for eligibility. New Yorkers without a vehicle should contact their family physician or local Federally Qualified Health Center about testing availability," Jonah Bruno, the director of communications for NYSHD told Business Insider.

However, without a primary care physician in the city, McGrath was forced to wait for a call from NYSHD to give him an appointment at one of the state testing sites. His only alternative options were to either pay for an expensive private test or fall so ill that he would need to be taken to a hospital to be tested along with other critical COVID-19 patients.

Last month, New York City's health department sent out an advisory to physicians, directing them to tell patients to stay home if they have a "COVID-like illness not requiring hospitalization."

"Hospital systems may create alternate testing venues to offload their emergency departments," the advisory read.

And although McGrath expressed gratitude for operators on the NYSHD coronavirus hotline, he claimed that he was not asked or told by anyone the screening process that he may need a vehicle to be tested. McGrath said he was simply given an appointment time, an address, and reminded to bring some form of identification.

"I feel like the option that was put together for all these people that took this assessment online completely ignored the accessibility for so many New Yorkers," he noted. "I'm grateful enough that I could pay for car find a driver who was willing to do that, but I could easily see that going poorly."

Requiring a car for testing locations may exclude disadvantaged New Yorkers

According to New Yorkers who spoke to Business Insider, they appear to assign patients based on the nearest testing facility. That means whether you get a walk-in or drive-through appointment is based on availability and where New Yorkers live.

Before Kadiatou Tubman, 29, a program director with the New York Public Library, was told she could get tested at the COVID-19 site at Lehman College in Bronx, New York, closest to their home, she and her partner frequently called the NYSHD hotline after they started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. (Tubman's sister is the editor of this story.) About two weeks later, on March 19, Tubman was granted an appointment while her partner had not.

But by then, Tubman and her partner's car was unavailable, and they were too ill to take the hour-long commute via public transportation to get to the testing site. Fortunately, Tubman's sister, who had been previously tested for COVID-19 but hadn't yet received her results, was able to drive the couple to the Bronx's drive-through testing site. (Tubman's sister, Kadia Tubman, is an editor at Insider Inc and edited this story.)

Only upon arrival did Tubman realize a car was required to get assessed for the disease. Like McGrath, she said she was not asked at any point during the screening process if she had a vehicle to enter the drive-thru test center.

While drive-thru testing sites are a great method of limiting access between health personnel and patients as they swab their nose for samples, they simply don't meet the needs of a swath of New York City's car-less population.

While the drive-thru may not be an issue for infected residents in certain areas in New York City, like Staten Island, where 83% of households own a vehicle, the vehicle requirement is an ongoing issue for residents in the Bronx, where 60% of its residents don't have a car. Some security forces, which include national guard, state police, and forest rangers, report that they frequently encounter Bronx residents arriving at the testing site on foot.

Tubman believes the lack of access to testing is one of many reasons behind the surge in cases throughout her working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, which has recently become a hotspot for infection. Between juggling work, the costs, and the inconvenience to get to many to the testing sites, she worried that many low-income New Yorkers may choose not to get tested and potentially infect more people in their community.

While the Bronx resident was fortunate to have arrived at the testing site in a car, Tubman doesn't know how many of her neighbors who already struggle with transportation would have the same access, including people living with disabilities, the elderly, or lower-income families who may not be able to afford a taxi.

"It really showed a whole other level of inequality of access that people don't have when we're thinking about this pandemic," Tubman said. "I agree that this is unprecedented and we're building the plane as we're flying at the same time. But I think this is why we need to continuously be mindful of how different communities and how different areas and people are impacted by a crisis."

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