Disparities in COVID-19 testing accessibility create tale of two pandemics
While students, faculty and staff at Yale enjoy a convenient COVID-19 test scheduling system and next-day results, New Haven residents struggle to find tests, especially amid testing shortages.
Josh Baehring, Staff Photographer
For Amanda Dettmer, an associate research scientist at the Yale Child Study Center, scheduling COVID-19 tests for herself, her spouse and her children is as simple as “just a few clicks of a mouse,” she said.
But the process is more difficult for Dettmer’s mother, an immunocompromised individual who lives with Dettmer but who is not one of her health care dependents — and therefore isn’t covered by the health plan provided to Yale employees. When her mother presented “with cold-like symptoms” around Christmas, Dettmer spent a “few hours [on] several phone calls back and forth with her [mother’s] providers and with various COVID-19 groups within YNHH” to schedule a test. Because of “miscommunication between her providers and the symptomatic and asymptomatic YNHH groups,” Dettmer had to repeatedly call the same numbers and explain the situation multiple times, which “felt very circular,” she said. When she tried to search for testing slots at drugstores or community clinics, “there was no availability anywhere nearby,” Dettmer added.
“I think we were lucky that we ended up being able to schedule her relatively quickly, because I know the general community has a much more difficult time with this,” Dettmer wrote in an email to the News. “It’s still shocking to me how quickly and easily I can schedule a test for myself or my dependents, versus for my mother – but that both of these are infinitely easier than for my friends who live just a few blocks away but have no affiliation with Yale.”
As New Haven residents scramble to secure COVID-19 testing amid a sharp rise in hospitalizations and deaths, locals have once again pointed out disparities in testing access between those inside and outside of the Yale community.
In preparation for undergraduates’ return to campus, Yale introduced a series of COVID-19 prevention policies, including pre-arrival and post-arrival testing requirements and an extension of the existing twice-weekly testing requirement. The measures aim to combat the latest spike in cases during a global rise in cases caused by the Omicron variant. Still, though the University offers on-demand COVID-19 tests with next-day results for all Yale students, faculty and staff, New Haveners face increasing testing shortages and delays. Some local residents questioned the contrast.
“Acquiring a COVID-19 test in New Haven requires a lot of luck, a lot of time, and almost always a car to get to testing,” New Haven resident Sam Maldonado wrote in an email to the News. “My coworkers and I all have had similar experiences – the soonest testing available is weeks out. In order to acquire a must-needed test, it involves waiting in line for hours … My roommate is a graduate student at Yale and had easy access to tests whenever she needs them. The biggest difficulties she’s faced are less than ideal time slots … requiring her to adjust her schedule or push a test back no more than a day.”
As of this Monday, New Haven County leads the state in average hospitalizations per 100,000 residents and average daily deaths. To address the rising demand for COVID-19 tests, the city has rolled out a series of initiatives to increase testing accessibility for New Haven residents. Beginning Jan. 18, households became eligible for four free rapid COVID-19 tests within 7-12 days through the federal government’s new test distribution program. Still, many experience challenges in trying to obtain a COVID-19 test.
Nataliya Braginsky, a high school teacher at the Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, said that she faced nearly a month-long wait when attempting to schedule a COVID-19 test. When she tried to schedule a test on Jan. 8 through the Yale New Haven Health System, the main online testing scheduler that Braginsky and her colleagues at New Haven Public Schools use and different from Yale University’s system, the first available test was on Jan. 25.
During a Dec. 31 Yale New Haven Health COVID-19 virtual press briefing, Thomas Balcezak, chief clinical officer of the Yale New Haven Health System, said that their outpatient testing sites would no longer be accepting walk-ins. Balcezak said the hospital’s testing lab has the capacity to perform around 40,000 tests per week, but that it had already met that weekly threshold. Yale New Haven Hospital CEO Marna Borgstrom noted that off-duty police officers were hired at all outpatient testing sites because of “unruly behavior.” She referenced incidents of visitors “pushing and shoving in testing lines.”
According to a Jan. 2 city press release, New Haven has focused on distributing tests to essential employees who are symptomatic or exposed to COVID-19. The distribution of tests was particularly targeted at school teachers to ensure that they were ready to return to school after the winter break. The city also planned to distribute tests to community groups that serve vulnerable city residents and to families of school children who are symptomatic or exposed to COVID-19. However, because of limited COVID-19 tests, they were not distributed to the general public. Instead, the city recommended people get tested at Wren Lab sites, located on the New Haven Green and Sargent Drive, or at other testing institutions.
While there are pop-up clinics that offer walk-ups, Braginsky said that they were not very “viable or sustainable options” as they often quickly reached capacity. After learning about Yale’s twice weekly testing requirement that the University reimplemented in December and will continue into the spring semester, Braginsky told the News that a mandate like that could help the New Haven Public Schools stay safe.
“I’m almost speechless to think about what a huge impact that would make if students and/or staff had a mandate to be tested even once a week,” Braginsky said. “But such a mandate isn’t possible when the testing access isn’t there.”
Braginsky said it felt unjust that the city and the New Haven public school system do not have the necessary resources to keep residents and students safe, while Yale does.
“Just hoping that we don’t have COVID isn’t enough,” Braginsky said. “We should be able to test regularly and know definitively that we’re not contributing to the spread either at work or bringing it home to our families.”
Maldonado described a difference in their experiences acquiring a COVID-19 test in Raleigh, North Carolina versus in New Haven. They said that when officials at the city-run testing sites in Raleigh heard about the increased testing demands around Christmas time, those sites created more appointment slots. According to Maldonado, over the next one and a half weeks after the appointment increase, they were able to get tested four times “without any trouble,” and they never stayed for over 15 minutes for an appointment. However, during that same time, Maldonado’s co-workers in New Haven had to wait in line for hours to get tested.
Yale students seeking COVID-19 test appointments after returning to campus will face a far different experience. In an email to Yale students sent on Jan. 4, Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd recommended students “make [a COVID-19 test] appointment now, as demand for testing is high,” but scheduling a test on the Yale COVID testing website takes a few minutes and students can still schedule same-day appointments at any of Yale’s five open testing facilities located around campus.
First-years Ariane de Gennaro ’25 and Alex Mclane ’25 said that getting tested at Yale has been easy.
“It’s helpful that there are so many testing centers,” de Gennaro said. “I’m in Franklin, and I can do mine at the Watson Center, which is just a couple minutes away.”
Mclane described a similar experience with convenient testing locations and little difficulty scheduling same-day tests. He said that he usually gets tested at the Schwarzman Center right after eating lunch at Commons. Mclane added that he rarely experienced lines at testing centers and is “usually in and out in five to 10 minutes.”
The Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center in Massachusetts, provides asymptomatic testing for Yale along with almost 100 other higher education institutions. The lab performs over 100,000 tests daily, and students can often view their results the following day.
After the spike in cases brought on by the Omicron variant, students like Diego Lopez ’24 and Nikita Paudel ’25 faced minor delays in COVID-19 testing service, like having to schedule tests earlier in advance. Lopez said he was thankful for the Yale employees and staff who worked to ensure students had readily available access to COVID-19 testing and considered his testing accessibility at Yale “to be a privilege.”
Dettmer said Yale should offer both free PCR testing and free saliva-based testing to the New Haven community. She noted that the University of California, Davis has been providing free saliva-based testing in its broader community, and the efforts have been “successful.” Both Dettmer and Maldonado wrote that Yale could also help with providing more vaccination sites and access to secure, high-quality masks which are necessary for helping prevent the spread of Omicron. According to a communication from Boyd on Jan. 14, Yale will provide ASTM mask packs to students when they arrive, in order to help them follow the new mask mandate inhibiting cloth masks.
Karen Peart, the director of University Media Relations, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how much Yale has helped New Haven with COVID-19 testing.
Efforts are underway to bridge the testing divide between the University and the city, the most recent being the partnership between the city and SalivaDirect. SalivaDirect, a PCR test which uses saliva to track COVID-19 cases, was developed by a team of Yale researchers at the School of Public Health. According to Anne Wyllie, a research scientist at the School of Public Health who leads the SalivaDirect team, the new protocol allows for greater efficiency in the testing process by allowing authorized labs to use existing supply chains and infrastructure.
The SalivaDirect Team has launched community partnerships in the past. Over the summer, the Yale Pathology lab teamed up with Clifford Beers, a children’s mental health clinic, to provide weekly saliva-based COVID-19 testing for the kids in First Calvary Church’s summer program.
An ongoing program that Sumaira Akbarzada, the community liaison for the SalivaDirect team, helped develop is to offer saliva-based testing for the refugees and immigrants at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. The testing continues to be conducted every Wednesday morning at the IRIS building.
Akbarzada said she was able to talk to some of the recently arrived Afghan families who said they were thankful for how convenient and accessible the testing was.
“We got a really good response,” Akbarzada said. “Everybody said that they were very happy with how easy it was to get tested on our side. [They] didn’t have to make an appointment. It was walk-in, and everybody was welcome. No questions asked.”
In the Jan. 12 Yale New Haven Health COVID-19 virtual press briefing, Balcezak announced that Yale New Haven Health system opened up more testing appointments across all of its testing enterprises in the areas it operates. According to him, through collaboration with the governor’s office and the National Guard troops that were sent to help out, testing appointments increased from 3,600 to 4,800 a day in outpatient testing centers. Balcezak noted that the governor also expects to receive and distribute more testing kits, which should allow more people to test at home instead of at test sites.
According to the Center for Diseases and Control Prevention’s COVID-19 data tracker, as of Jan. 24, there are 9,391 cases in New Haven.