TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County residents will have temporary access to free surveillance testing thanks to a vote last week by the county legislature, dedicating hundreds of thousands to cover test costs for Cayuga Health Systems. 

The legislature approved $300,000 in spending to be used to pay Cayuga Health Systems to provide the surveillance testing to Tompkins County residents for a period of up to 10 weeks. Those who are not residents of Tompkins County will have to pay the $99 fee that Cayuga Health Systems had previously established for people seeking testing who do not meet the criteria for free tests. This means county residents will not have to meet criteria like experiencing symptoms or having close contact with a COVID-19 positive patient to access testing for free. 

It represents the first time that the county has sent money to CHS specifically to cover testing costs, though it is obviously not the only money the county has spent during its coronavirus response. Whether or not more funding is needed from the county in the short term, or if the $300,000 will last beyond the 10-week mark, will be determined over the next few weeks as demand is gauged. 

“It’s a starting point, until we get the first few weeks under our belts and see the numbers that we’re seeing,” said Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino. “Also, there could be incidents that would trigger increased testing, so this is about trying to put something down and then monitoring it over the course of the first few weeks to see what type of activity we’re getting. As we go through this, we’ll be able to say we think it will last longer, or that we’ll need more funding.”

As of Aug. 30, the health department counts 54,451 coronavirus tests administered in Tompkins County, the vast majority of which have come at the mobile sampling center in the parking lot of The Shops at Ithaca Mall, which operates every weekday. The timing of this legislation, Kruppa and Molino said, is not related to Cornell University students returning to Ithaca, and Cornell is financially responsible for testing its own students. 

Molino said there has not been a hard cap set yet on how much the county would be willing to spend to support free surveillance testing for every county resident, beyond this initial $300,000. 

“The legislature has made this commitment, which I think is probably the only legislature in the state right now that’s making this commitment because of the value of the surveillance perspective with this disease,” Molino said. “This will be a fluid conversation that we have with the legislature, keeping them apprised of where we are at cost-wise and then balance the benefit of continuing to maintain surveillance testing, or if there’s a reason not to, then that’ll be a determination made at a later date.”

There have been a few shifts in policy over the course of the pandemic regarding who is eligible for testing, and Molino said Cayuga Health Systems had communicated around the beginning of July that it was no longer financially feasible to provide free tests to all the people who were seeking them. That was primarily due to health insurance companies narrowing their criteria to only reimburse tests given to medically necessary people, i.e. those who are symptomatic, have been exposed to a known COVID-positive patient, or those who have an upcoming medical procedure; these policies were issued as Gov. Andrew Cuomo was telling all New York residents they were eligible for testing (though this turned out to only be true for state-run facilities—Tompkins County’s is operated privately by CHS). As a result, 40 percent of COVID tests were deemed ineligible for reimbursement, according to the resolution passed by the legislature.

“Cayuga Health Systems is no longer able or willing to provide free community surveillance testing to the community and the recommendation of the public health director and county administrator is for the county to enter into a contract with Cayuga Health Systems to provide community testing,” the resolution stated. 

Community surveillance testing, the resolution further notes, is eligible for 75 percent expense reimbursement from the federal government through FEMA, paid to the county, meaning the county could recoup most of the money it will pay to support testing—though Molino said his staff will begin invoicing the federal government in a piecemeal fashion soon to see what is approved for reimbursement. Public Health Director Frank Kruppa talked about the significance of maintaining a strong testing program and making sure it remains as accessible as possible. 

“The most important thing for us as a health department is being able to isolate and quarantine effectively,” Kruppa said. “One of the main tools that we have for that is testing, we need to know who’s positive so that we can get them isolated and any close contacts quarantined. Being able to have testing available here in our community is a vital part of our response to COVID-19.”

Free testing will be available for Tompkins County residents beginning Tuesday, Sept. 1.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com