City abruptly closes coronavirus testing centers, confusing locals and officials

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The mayor’s office abruptly closed most coronavirus testing centers on Friday — including two brand new Brooklyn sites.
Photo by Todd Maisel

The mayor’s office abruptly closed most coronavirus testing centers on Friday — but failed to notify many officials and hospital workers, confusing and frustrating locals. 

“They didn’t give us any detail,” said Eddie Mark, the district manager of Community Board 13, which services Coney Island, Gravesend, and Brighton Beach. “There’s nobody that we know of that we can call.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on March 2o that the city would close all appointment-only coronavirus testing facilities citywide, citing a critical shortage of protective gear, such as gloves and face masks, for hospital staff. Hizzoner clarified two days later that testing would continue at tent facilities erected outside public hospitals — but only for patients in need of hospitalization.

The change in protocol came only hours after two testing sites opened their doors at Coney Island Hospital and the Ida G. Israel Community Health Center. A third testing site at Coney Island’s MCU Park, which is still under construction, will test overflow emergency room patients from Coney Island Hospital once it’s completed, officials said.

Prior to the facilities’ closure, residents had been told they could make appointments at the testing centers by calling the New York City Health and Hospitals hotline, where a clinician would evaluate their symptoms. 

However, when residents called the hotline on Saturday — after the change in protocol — clinicians told them that they had never heard of either testing site and did not listen to their symptoms.

The response confused and frustrated callers, who simply wanted to know how to get tested.

“I was on the phone for eight hours over two days,” said Nicole, a Midwood resident who said she experienced fever and coughing, and feared she could infect her elderly mother who suffers from cancer.

Nicole said she called the hotline to make an appointment, but after waiting for 45 minutes on hold, a pre-screener told her, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why you’re calling this number. We just give out general information.”

The screener eventually transferred Nicole to a doctor, but the doctor did not listen to Nicole’s symptoms and simply told her to go to the hospital if she “felt ill,” she said. 

“She just repeated the same mantra, like she was reading from a script,” Nicole said. “They’re explicitly instructed to get rid of as many phone calls as possible,” she speculated.

Because many local officials and even hospital staff did not know that the testing sites had closed, they redirected confused callers back to the same hotline to schedule an appointment. As of Tuesday afternoon, receptionists at Coney Island Hospital were still telling callers to call the hotline. 

Nicole decided to visit a CityMD instead, where she was able to get tested for free with her insurance. (The test costs $200 without insurance.) The CityMD doctor told Nicole that her symptoms, her exposure to a confirmed coronavirus patient, and her close proximity to her at-risk mother make her a textbook coronavirus case, she said. 

“The fact that I was able with such ease to go somewhere else, that says to me that their system is the one failing,” said Nicole, who, as of Tuesday afternoon, is still awaiting her test results.

Mark, of Community Board 13, said that the state’s ability to turn the Javits Center in Manhattan into a testing complex indicates that there must be enough resources for a similar center in Brooklyn.

They’re setting that up, but what about Brooklyn?” he said.