SCHENECTADY— Barely an hour after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state would conduct widespread antibody testing in an effort to trace the virus’ spread across the state, people lined up inside the Price Chopper/Market 32 on Eastern Parkway in Schenectady seeking to get tested.
City resident John Bergin parked his shopping cart and hopped in line as shoppers milled about, most of them wearing masks.
He said he experienced mild respiratory issues earlier this winter.
“I’ve been concerned,” Bergin said.
While most people practiced social distancing, others clumped together in twos and threes without wearing masks, all attracted by a bright yellow sign that said, “NYS DOH antibody screening. Find out if you have been exposed here!”
By mid-afternoon, nearly two-dozen people waited in line, including several county legislators.
Deputy Chair Philip Fields works in the state Assembly, where at least three lawmakers have tested positive for the virus.
“I feel like I’ve been exposed to people who definitely had COVID and just wanted to make sure,” said Fields, who likened the test to “just a prick.”
State officials said finger-stick blood samples will be tested at Wadsworth, the state lab.
The abrupt operation which took over the supermarket’s cafe caught the county by surprise.
“Schenectady County was notified about random antibody testing being conducted at the Eastern Parkway Price Chopper site today by the [state] Department of Health after it had begun,” said county Legislature Chairman Anthony Jasenski in a statement.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi shot back on Twitter: “This is for a specific study, as we made clear today and they have our phone number. Don’t be small.”
The governor didn’t indicate testing was scheduled to begin imminently during his daily press briefing on Sunday.
A statement released by his office following his remarks at a Long Island testing lab said the state aimed to take a survey of 3,000 people initially, a process that wasn’t scheduled to begin until Monday.
The state Department of Health told the Gazette that patrons at grocery stores in different regions across the state will be recruited as part of that effort.
“We’re fortunate we’ve got a partner in Price Chopper/Market 32, an essential business, that worked with us so quickly to operationalize this effort today, which will go a long way in helping us reach a goal of 3,000 participants,” a spokesperson told The Gazette on Sunday evening.
Price Chopper/Market32 said the testing at three stores, including their location in Malta, was a one-off and will not be repeated.
“They have not made any other arrangements for our other stores,” said Mona Golub, Price Chopper/Market 32’s vice president of public relations and consumer services. “There are no future dates or times at these stores or others of ours at this time.”
Antibody testing is not the same traditional diagnostic testing, which indicates whether a person currently has the virus.
Testing antibodies reveals if the person has previously been infected or not.
For many, the virus presents mild symptoms and can often self-resolve without the person knowing they have been infected.
The Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services notified people of the Malta event, advising people to wear masks and practice social distancing if they went.
Some criticized the format.
“The [state] DOH needs to move this outside, or do drive-up testing,” wrote one commentator. “Way too many people are standing way too close together for me. Until they figure a way to do this that doesn’t involve packing people into the front of a grocery store, count me out.”
Widespread testing and contact tracing is necessary to ease the state’s shutdown, said Cuomo, and would offer a “true snapshot” of the spread of coronavirus, which has killed nearly 14,000 New Yorkers.
“We have not had hard data on where we are,” Cuomo said.
Researchers said they aim to start with 10,000 antibody tests a day before ramping up.
“The anticipation is we’ll be able to do hundreds of thousands of tests,” said Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the lab spearheading the effort.
Dowling said on Sunday people will initially be selected through random sampling
While antibody testing is still relatively new and untested, its limited usage nationwide has yielded mixed results and raised concerns over its accuracy, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
Cases are subsiding in New York, and the hospitalization rates and deaths are at their lowest levels since early-April.
But infection rates could spike if the state reopens too fast and without the proper precautionary measures, Cuomo said, noting it’s difficult when the virus will peak upstate due to the lack of testing.
“We have a very small margin of error here as we move forward,” Cuomo said.
Jasenski said the county appreciates “any and all testing opportunities” made available.
“However, the continued lack of test kit availability in Schenectady County, a nation-wide problem, hampers our ability to take care of our residents, especially the most vulnerable among us,” he said. “Available widespread use of testing, random and otherwise, is crucial to identifying the steps necessary for us to move forward.”